Tracking the ethics and technology curriculum at Stanford over the past 10 years

April 4, 2021, 10:45 p.m.

The ethical use of technology has emerged as a focus both within and outside of the tech industry in recent years. Over the past decade, public discussion has turned to the behavior of firms in Silicon Valley and their ramifications across society — their collecting and sharing users’ data, the growing use of social media to spread false information or incite violence and the development of racially biased medical algorithms predominantly trained on data from white patients, for example. Technology continues to develop at a rapid pace and is pervasive in our everyday lives, encompassing driving, personal entertainment, fitness, healthcare and more.  

As the impact of technology on society continues to grow, Stanford’s curricula has followed suit. The Daily’s Data Team examined data collected over the past 10 years from Explore Courses to analyze enrollment trends in tech and tech ethics classes. The number of tech classes offered at Stanford has increased and enrollment in tech classes has also increased. However, the number of tech ethics courses offered by the university and the enrollment figures in these classes have not kept up.

The Data Team defined “tech” courses as those that are in the Computer Science department or include the term ‘data science,’ ‘technology,’ ‘cyber,’ ‘AI,’ ‘artificial intelligence,’ ‘computer science,’ ‘computer’ or ‘digital,’ in their course descriptions. “Ethics” courses are defined as those that include the term ‘society,’ ‘ethics,’ ‘moral,’ ‘social impact’ or ‘justice.’ “Tech ethics” courses are defined as those that contain at least one tech and one ethics keyword. 

The above graph shows that the number of tech, ethics and tech ethics courses at Stanford have increased over the past 10 years. However, in 2010-11, the university was offering drastically higher numbers of tech and ethics courses than tech ethics courses. This trend has continued throughout the 2010s, and in the 2019-20 school year, Stanford offered 926 tech courses, 746 ethics courses and 103 tech ethics courses. 

The number of courses offered does not necessarily correspond to actual student participation, so we next examine student enrollment across course categories.

The above graph shows the enrollment in ethics and tech courses over the past 10 years. Enrollment was highest in the tech courses, followed by ethics courses and then tech ethics courses, beginning in the 2010-11 school year. Enrollment in tech courses increased steadily over the past 10 years, from 23,550 to 36,614. Enrollment in ethics and tech ethics courses has remained much lower in comparison, with ethics courses starting at enrollment of 10,412 and moving to 12,039 in the 2019-20 school year. In tech ethics courses, enrollment levels began at 1,775 students in 2010-11 and were at 2,465 in 2019-20. 

Despite the differences in enrollment numbers, the number of students enrolled in tech, ethics or tech ethics courses increased or saw little change each school year. One exception is 2011-12, when enrollment in both ethics and tech ethics courses decreased. 

One potential reason for the slight drop in enrollment in 2012-13 is that the required courses for freshmen, Introduction to Humanities (IHUM) changed to Thinking Matters (THINK). While IHUM classes were large and required for all three quarters of freshmen year, THINK courses are only required for one quarter and have fewer students per class. 

Taken together, changes in enrollment each year in tech, ethic and tech ethics courses show that despite increases in the number of tech ethics classes offered, enrollment in these courses has not changed dramatically. The comparatively slower growth in enrollment for tech ethics courses may also be explained by less restrictive enrollment caps for many CS courses.

A shift: Increased popularity in tech courses and more initiatives promoting tech ethics

Compared to a decade ago, the “university itself is taking an interest in these courses,” according to Robert Reich, Stanford political science professor and the director of the Center for Ethics in Society. 

“There are many more attempts to build bridges between the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Engineering than there used to be,” Reich said. 

One example is the presidential initiative on ethics, society and technology. This initiative is reflected in the university’s Long-Range Vision and led to creation of the Ethics, Society & Technology (EST) Hub, which pushes for integrating ethics into a wider variety of courses. 

Simultaneously, Reich said he witnessed the “the great migration of students” from the social sciences part of campus to the engineering quad.   

“The university was beginning to express anxiety about the much larger numbers of people majoring in CS and the fewer enrollments in humanities and social sciences,” he said. 

These trends motivated Reich along with Jeremy Weinstein, Stanford political science professor; Mehran Sahami, Associate Chair for Education in the Stanford Computer Science department; and Hilary Cohen, Stanford lecturer, to create CS182: Ethics, Public Policy and Technological Change. The course, first offered in Winter 2018-19, is taught by faculty from a variety of disciplines and offers a unique interdisciplinary experience to students. 

“Rather than tell students in the CS setting that they should take a course in moral philosophy or political philosophy as a way of exploring the ethical dimension… you want them in dialogue with one another in the same class,” Reich said. 

The EST Hub is also working to integrate ethics curriculum into tech courses through the Embedded EthiCS initiative that launched this school year. One of the CS classes with the new ethics component is CS106A: Introduction to Programming Methodology. In CS106A, Kathleen Creel, a guest lecturer whose research is focused on the political and ethical implications of machine learning, attended various lectures to discuss the ethics of what students had learned in class. Some topics the guest lecturer covered were the ethics of image manipulation, how to make tech accessible to consumers beyond the United States and analyzing the adjectives used to compare male and female teachers. 

Avika Patel ’24, who took CS106A in Fall 2020, felt that the ethics component of CS106A was very effective. According to Patel, making the assignments written made them more powerful since it encouraged students to consider the ethical implications of new technology. 

“If I work at a tech company, these (ethics assignments) are so important but easy to forget,” Patel said.  

Another CS106A student, Deepan Shah ’24, also appreciated the integration of ethics into the CS106A curriculum. 

“I love the decision to integrate ethics into CS classes relatively early on, as instilling that knowledge early in students’ CS education will help them make ethically informed decisions now and in their future careers,” Shah said. 

Patel’s and Shah’s experiences in CS106A reflect a new generation of students who will begin their computer science education at Stanford equipped with the tools to evaluate the ethics of technology in society.

Rachel Oh is a staff writer in the Data section. She’s a master’s student from Seoul, South Korea, studying Communication and enjoys playing the guitar. Contact her at [email protected].Anuka Mohanpuhr ‘24 is the Financial Officer of The Stanford Daily. She previously served as a news desk editor. She grew up in the Bay Area and is majoring in International Relations and Psychology. Contact her at amohanpuhr 'at'

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