Monday, May 25, 2009

Ethics Education: How Can You Tell?

One reason I started this blog was to use it in a short (four-week) engineering ethics segment of a freshman course for engineering and technology majors. When you teach something, you obviously expect the lessons to make some kind of positive change in your students. You hope that they will be able to do or understand something that they couldn’t do, or didn’t understand, before you went to work on them. With technical subjects such as circuit theory or computer programming, it’s fairly easy to tell whether the students learn what you want them to learn. That’s what exams are for. But how can you tell whether ethics instruction has achieved its goal, which is to turn students into ethical engineers?

In an ideal world of infinite educational-evaluation resources, you would do a longitudinal study of two groups of students: one group who took engineering ethics, and a second matched cohort of students who took the same courses as the test group except for the engineering ethics parts. You would then follow every student, doing in-depth interviews and gathering third-party information about the ethical aspects of their work over their entire careers. And at the end of this process (which would take thirty-five years or so), you could write a paper saying we know for sure that X number of students who took Y ethics module thirty-five years ago were Z per cent more ethical than the control group of students who didn’t. Only, of course, Z might turn out to be negative. All it takes is one determined crook in your test sample to throw everything off.

And that ties in to something I learned last week. It’s not only universities that try to improve their students’ ethics with educational modules; companies and governments try it too. In particular, every employee of the state of Illinois has to take a brief online ethics module periodically, up to and including (I presume) the governor. You may have heard the name Rod Blagojevich in the news over the last six months or so. He is the (now ex-) governor of Illinois who was impeached for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by now-President Obama. This was hardly ethical behavior under any standard, yet Blagojevich was following a tradition honored by numerous Illinois governors, of engaging in indictable behavior. If anyone was trying to evaluate the ethics education of Illinois employees and included the governor in their sample, they are going to have a lot of trouble showing that it helps.

But wait. Should one or two spectacularly bad apples spoil the barrel? That is, you are always going to have what are called “outliers.” If you are familiar with a Gaussian distribution, often called a “bell curve,” you know that it looks like a hill with gently sloping sides. If one of these distributions represents some measure of “ethicalness” (an ugly word, but I can’t think of a better one), then the peak of the hill represents the bulk of students who have what you might call typical or average ethics. Mother Teresa would be in the right-hand tail of the distribution, way off to one end, and the ex-governor would be somewhere in the left-hand tail.

You can make the argument that even though ethics education doesn’t prevent the occasional Blagojevich, if it moves the whole distribution to the right it makes the average person more ethical, which is worth something. But then you get into the utilitarian bind of evaluating the worth of ethics to society in general. Is it better that most people in a profession are a little more ethical even though some are still news-worthily unethical, or would it be better if somehow we could prevent only the worst ethical lapses and leave the rest alone? And all this assumes that there is some fail-safe way to evaluate ethics education other than the impossibly expensive and lengthy longitudinal study I described above, which is by no means clear.

All education involves some degree of faith, which is the certain knowledge of things we don’t see yet. Even if my students pass exams on digital logic or electromagnetics, I can’t say for sure what they’re going to do with those pieces of knowledge and ability. I can only trust that they will remember them and use them somehow in a good way. Experience has shown that the vast majority of our students do just that, although I can’t instantly pull up tons of documentation to prove it.

In the last several years, whenever the National Science Foundation funds programs to augment and encourage engineering ethics education, it insists that the outcomes of these programs be evaluated by some independent means. Their argument is that taxpayer money is being used for these programs, and the agency has to go back to Congress and show that the money did some good. Although the motive is laudable, I have questions about the method. The same person who told me about the online ethics course in Illinois is an expert in evaluating ethics education, which he admits is not a perfect process either. The preferred way is to administer a survey in which students answer questions about hypothetical ethical situations. As I say, it’s better than nothing. But it seems to me that the process of evaluating ethics education mainly to generate some paperwork to send back to Washington is motivated by the same spirit that causes the government of the state of Illinois to insist that all its employees take the online ethics module. In both cases, the ostensible motive seems to differ from the real motive.

Ostensibly, one is doing something that will genuinely improve (or measure) the ethics of the target population. But in reality, both the online ethics module and the ethics evaluation process serve mainly to shift responsibility for any possible bad outcomes. If another Rod Blagojevich shows up, Illinois government administrators can say, “Well, we did all we could—we made him take that ethics module.” And if despite all efforts, the next couple of decades turn up a few engineers who, despite taking NSF-evaluated engineering ethics education, go ahead and do something unethical anyway, the National Science Foundation can turn to Congress and say, “Well, we did all we could—we evaluated those programs with the best available evaluation instruments.”

Am I saying we should chuck all attempts at evaluation, or even ethics education? By no means. But let’s be realistic about what we’re trying to do, and not pretend that it’s capable of more than it can really do, which is simply to give us some reason to hope, but not to be certain, that we are making people more ethical.

Sources: Michael Loui, professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told me about these matters. I would point you to some information about Rod Blagojevich, but I think he’s already had more attention than he deserves. And my definition of faith is taken from the New Testament book of Hebrews, 11:1.

1 comment:

  1. Great topic for discussion. I think the best way to promote good ethics in future engineers (or any professional) is to match new hires with experienced and ethical mentors. A successful mentoring relationship would be far more effective in instilling sound ethical, as well as technical and professional, practices than any classroom experience. However, I concede that such an effect would be equally difficult to quantitize as the examples you've shown.