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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Ethics education in taught courses – not just a STEM issue?

By Samantha Ahern, on 18 December 2018

On the 12th December I visited Central St Martins for the UAL Teaching Platform event Ethics in Arts, Design and Media Education. Much of the discourse at present is focused on ethics education in STEM discplines such as Computer Science and Data Science, or more predominantly the lack of meaningful education.  Much of this has been driven by growing concerns around the algorithms deployed in social media applications and seemingly rapid growth of AI based applications. The House of Lords AI report explicitly talks about the need for ethics education in compulsory education if society and not just the UK economy is to benefit.

I was intrigued by a potentially alternative viewpoint.

The role of the arts is to push the boundaries, but are there limits to artisitic expression?

Are rebellion and social responsibility mutually exclusive?

UAL seem to think not.

The focus of the day was ethics in the context of what students make and do, in postgraduate and undergraduate taught course contexts. UAL aim to entwine ethics into the creative process, developing ethics as lived practice.

One approach to this has been the development of the Bigger Picture unit which requires groups of students to undertake both collaborative practice and participatory design projects. Some of these projects required students to work with vulnerable members of society e.g. the homeless. How do we ensure that the participants equally benefit and not exploited? Throughout the unit students were encouraged to work collaboratively with these participants respectfully, honestly and with integrity. To enable this, explicit sections on ethical considerations were added to the unit handbook and project brief.

Additionally, UAL has been working on the development of an Educational Ethics Code and establishing an educational ethics committee.

The code has 3 main themes, these are:

  • Respect for persons
    • Respecting the autonomy of others
  • Justice
    • Does everybody benefit?
    • Are there privilege and power differences?
    • What social good will the project do?
  • Beneficence
    • The art of doing good and no harm

There was a general acknowledgement amongst the attendees that many of the ethical decisions we make are situation specific and timebound,with key consideration to be given to who is part of the conversation and who has got the power? Privilege and power are important considerations, especially when it comes to consent models, regardless of discpline.

It was also acknowledged that there is a fineline between support (e.g. timely guidance) and imposition (e.g. lengthy formal ethical review processes).

Attending this event made me wonder: is this just one part of a much wider debate around compassion and social responsibility? To my mind it is.

Event related readings:




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