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Value Sensitive Design @ Khoury

Through this program, students gain training and experience in ethically informed computer science practice, meet peers with similar interests, build relationships with faculty working in ethics of computer science, and receive support to fund their research.

Details and Background

Many universities have started strategizing about how to effectively bring ethical reflection into a computer science curriculum. One popular approach involves building and embedding ethics lessons into existing computer science courses. This “modular” strategy enables instructors to link ethical reflection and discussion to material in the course.

Northeastern uses the modular approach in tandem with Technology and Human Values, a required semester-long course for CS students. Concepts and topics introduced in the Technology and Human Values course are reinforced and re-engaged through practical application in the modules.

Our modules use an approach we call “Value Analysis in Design” (VAD), which is inspired by the tradition and methodology of Value Sensitive Design. We see this approach as a way of fostering a set of reflective attitudes and skills that we believe are key to ethically reflective technology design and development. We run these ethics modules across a range of Computer Science, Data Science, and Cybersecurity courses.

VAD modules emphasize that computing technologies are not merely value neutral tools, but are necessarily enmeshed in value-laden socio-technical contexts. Values come in and guide the entire process of technology design, development, and implementation. Further, values can change in response to the implementation and integration of a technology.

VAD modules emphasize that the ethical concerns raised by computing technologies are not merely technical problems with solely technical solutions. Rather they require engaging with a diverse range of expertise, offered from an array of disciplinary perspectives.

We assess the effectiveness of the VAD modules with respect to normative attitudes that we see as being central to promoting the ethical design, development, and deployment of computing technologies. In particular, we examine whether they increase students’ perceived interest in, and perceived skill at, navigating the moral quandaries raised by their expected field of work. We found that the modules, which lasted no more than two class periods, were enough to have a positive impact on those attitudes, to generate a greater motivation to address ethical concerns in their field, and to foster a greater expected self-mastery to do so.

Students can apply to be Khoury Ethics in CS Research Fellows.

To encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, student fellows are selected from across departments, colleges, majors, and minors.  Those selected gain experience in research at the intersection of ethics of computer science, meet peers with similar interests, build relationships with faculty working in ethics of computer science, and receive support to both fund their research and to attend the TAPIA conference or the Grace Hopper Conference.  Fellows also present their research at Northeastern’s annual Research, Innovation, Scholarship and Entrepreneurial conference.

Northeastern’s long history of co-operative education programs means that the university has many connections to a variety of organizations (academic, civic, corporate, non-governmental) where students interested in contributing to digital technology ethics or policy work can contribute, including as researchers.  Those experiences enrich our students’ education and help lay foundations for a larger community of people with fluency in both computer science and in ethical discernment and reasoning.  Additionally, having students in a course who have had co-op experience enriches class discussion.

Working with a group of Northeastern staff and faculty from CSSH, COS, and Khoury, we are expanding the range of co-op placements related to those topic areas both on and off campus. 

2022-23 Ethics in CS Research Fellows

Name: Shriya Dhaundiyal

Class Year:  Completed Align program in Spring 2022

Degree: Masters in CS

What you hope to learn/ do in the program: As a budding software developer, I wish to gain a better understanding of how bias permeates through existing and novel algorithmic designs and is used to deanonymize, target, or even exclude certain groups of society, threatening their privacy, security, and rights. I hope to delve deeper into the societal impact of technology and improve my ability to better identify computer science’s potential to perpetuate social injustices. I aspire to come up with solutions and better protocols for awareness and defense systems that can help mitigate these major privacy concerns.


Name: Lauryn Fluellen

Class year: 2024

Degree: Master of Computer Science

What you hope to learn/do in the program: I hope to gain research experience, collaborate with like-minded individuals, and directly contribute to research on the topic of ethics in computer science, specifically in artificial intelligence. I am very passionate about this topic and hope to increase awareness of the ethical issues present and the possible ethical issues that may arise as our technology continues to advance.


Name: Emerson Johnston (she/her)

Class Year: 2023

Degree: BS Philosophy, Politics, and Economics; BA History, Culture, and Law; Minors: Criminal Justice and Argumentation

What you hope to learn/do in the program: I’m excited to learn more about the intersection of artificial intelligence and ethics as it relates to international weapons development and policy making.


Name: Amanda Lee

Class Year: Undergrad 2025

Degree: Computer Science and Design combined major

What you hope to learn/do in the program: I hope to gain more perspectives on the connections between computer science and ethics to be able to make a difference in marginalized communities.

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