On Banning Electronics from the Classroom

A post appeared on The Daily Nous, today, taking up a question raised by an editorial in The Washington Post: Should an instructor at the university level, as a matter of explicit policy, forbid students to have or use their own electronic devices in the classroom?

I used to have such a policy, as I was tired of seeing students absorbed in social media or online videos while I was trying so desperately to engage them.

It did not go over very well with students and, in any case, left me feeling uneasy. As some of my students protested, the policy comes across as condescending, patronizing.

When I switched to problem-based learning (PBL), though, I dropped the policy: the internet can be a resource for students working in groups in the classroom, though I do try to help them reflect on their use of the internet and the relative value of various sources they may find there.

Here is the comment I contributed to the thread following the post on The Daily Nous: Continue reading

Self-Driving Cars: A View from the Sidewalk

I have not been following the hype over self-driving cars closely enough to tell whether it’s a passing fad or something more enduring.

As is often the case with emerging technologies that excite people’s imaginations, many claims for the benefits of self-driving cars come across as exaggerated, almost utopian.

In any case, benefits are cast as benefits, along a single dimension of value: self-driving cars will be convenient and profitable, and we’ll all be better off if they become more prevalent.

I’m far from convinced. Continue reading

Object Lessons

My post about the cyclotron case – “The Other End of the Beam” – has made me wonder whether I could build a course in practical ethics, or perhaps just the introductory segment of a course, around a single, physical object.

I’d come across a brief account of the idea of an object lesson, which is attributed to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educational theorist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in a recent overview of the philosophy of education by Nel Noddings.

I’ll need to go back and look at her account, and I’ll need to dig into the history of it, but the basic idea is to allow students to learn from interacting directly with a particular object. Especially notable is that the technique was often used for moral instruction, often in a religious context.

That original meaning of the term, object lesson, has been obscured: in common usage, it refers generally to an experience from which someone learns something.

I’d like to restore the core idea of interacting with an object, in imagination if not in direct experience, to give students practical experience using one or another skill of ethical inquiry. Continue reading

The Other End of the Beam

This past semester I presented students in my engineering ethics course with an especially messy problem situation involving the development of a cyclotron for use in proton therapy, an unreliable fellow engineer, a boss playing favorites, the spectacular failure of a control system during a preliminary test, the relative merits of hardware versus software, and a lot of time pressure.

Proton therapy is a relatively recent development in the treatment of cancer; a new facility for proton therapy is under construction only a few blocks from campus.

Students worked on this situation in groups over a period of several weeks. I asked them to analyze the situation, do whatever background research they needed to do, develop at least three options, and offer up a careful, even-handed consideration of the ethical implications of each option in terms of basic values.

The results were mixed. Continue reading

An Unlikely Contrast Between Torture and Social Media

Continuing the point about the good and the right in discussions of the CIA torture program, my attention has been drawn to a domain in which arguments from the right seem more easily to yield to arguments from the good, almost to the point of reducing the discussion entirely to terms of benefits and costs.

I am about to delete my Facebook profile.

I posted some status updates to that effect, along with some links to sources intended to provoke thought about privacy, social life, and the uses and abuses of Big Data. Continue reading