Practicalities Online Teaching Prerequisites Essays and Peer Review Booklet Examination Expectations Integrity Contact Textbooks Outline

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Ethics for the Digital Society (PSI-EDS-B)

Syllabus for Winter Semester 2020/21

Dominik Herrman (v1.0 / 20201030)

This course introduces students to fundamental concepts of ethics and their application to techniques that shape the digital society. We will discuss the influence of current and upcoming technologies and their implications from an ethical perspective. The lecture is accompanied by a series of case studies, which focus on a concrete problem that is to be analyzed by the participants. Topics include decision making in autonomous systems and systems that employ so-called artificial intelligence, the reliability and dependability of computer systems, and privacy aspects of information systems.

This syllabus is an attempt to provide all relevant pieces of information about PSI-EDS-B in one place. The syllabus helps managing expectations, and it gives reasons for the course design. Please read it carefully and inform us if anything is unclear or missing.

1. Practicalities

This course is worth 3 ECTS, consists of a lecture (2 hours per week), and is taught in English. All materials will be made available via its corresponding VC course. You do not need an enrollment key during the first two weeks, afterwards, the enrollment key will be set to m9dxaszMt47x.

We will record all lectures. Recordings will be available via VC and Panopto (access limited to the course, i. e., a closed group).

We will publish all lecture slides in VC. We also provide readings in VC.

A word of warning.  This module has the reputation of requiring a significant amount of work. The weekly cases and the Booklet will keep you quite busy. Working on the cases, in particular, may not feel rewarding at first. Remember to play the long game! Writing the essays will improve your writing skills significantly. You will only learn to write by practicing a lot. You will reap the benefits when you have to write your next seminar report and your thesis.

2. Online Teaching

The lecture runs synchronously and asynchronously. We produce pre-recorded videos, which are live-streamed via Panopto during the lecture timeslot announced in UnivIS. We offer a live stream because it helps to establish a sense of community.

Recordings will be available for download after the lecture so that everyone has access to the same content.

2.1 Interaction

We will use Rocket.Chat as well as the Questions and Answers Forum in VC for interactive communication. For contact and support options, see the section Contact and Support.

Rocket.Chat is useful for asking shorter questions, e. g., during the lecture, or for solving technical problems.

The Forum is more suitable for more extended questions, e. g., when you seek help for one of the cases. Please describe what you have assumed or attempted and what you would have expected. Please follow the advice on asking questions in the Teaching Philosophy.

Some of you may prefer to ask questions anonymously. You can use our anonymous user account psi-student to ask questions in the forum. The password and further login instructions are available in VC. Note that this account only works in VC but not in Rocket.Chat.

2.2 Keeping Up

It is paramount that you keep up during the semester. We provide an incentive to help you with that, the Booklet, which we will explain in the section Booklet.

3. Prerequisites

There are no prerequisites for this course.

4. Essays and Peer Review

During the semester multiple case studies will be published. Participants will be asked to submit essays or solutions (small programs) discussing ethical aspects of those case studies. The essays will be peer-reviewed by other participants.

The essays are awarded bonus points (“studienbegleitende Leistung”) that are added to the points achieved in the exam if the exam itself has been passed. Up to 10 % of the maximum number of points that can be achieved in the exam can be achieved via bonus points.

4.1 Procedure

There will be a new case roughly every week. The essays are due seven days after release. Essays consist of plain text submitted via our web application Peery (

Essays are reviewed anonymously, i. e., they should not contain the name of the author. After the deadline, every essay is reviewed by three randomly chosen students, i. e., every student receives three other essays. Reviewers stay anonymous and rank the three essays according to their quality and provide a short justification within five days. This allows the authors to incorporate feedback into their next essay. Authors receive the results after the reviewing deadline.

Optionally, authors can anonymously respond to the reviewers to challenge their justification. Reviewers will receive the authors' responses but cannot change the ranks any more at that point in time. This feedback channel may help improve the quality of the reviews over the course of time.

4.2 Grading

The submission of an essay scores 1 point with the exception of obvious dummy submissions, which will score 0 points and not participate in the reviewing process.

To incentivize reviewing, authors who do not submit a review will not receive any points for their essay.

The accumulated points are divided by 3 to determine the bonus points, i. e., you need to collect 30 points to score all 10 bonus points.

4.3 Guidance on Writing and Reviewing

Please check the notes on writing essays in VC. Please consider the following guidance on reviewing other students' essays.

Double-check the assigned ranks. In the past we had to fix assignments because the numbers got confused during assignment.

We are intentionally not giving you a list of quality indicators to look out for. Assessing essays is a very subjective task. If two essays are very similar in terms of quality, you will still have to make a ranking decision. Find a rule how to treat such a situation.

The word count provided in the case description is solely supposed to prevent you from spending too much effort on the essay. Therefore, I recommend that you do not penalize essays that are somewhat shorter or longer (unless it affects their quality). If you observe extreme deviations, you should consider that in your decision.

Be fair to your peers and do not sabotage their bonus points on purpose by choosing the ranks in a completely arbitrary fashion. Provide a reasonable justification for your decision in the text field. Your justification will be forwarded to the authors of the essays. For every reviewer, authors of an essay will see the two other essays with which their essay has been compared.

Once you receive the review result, you can approach me, if you believe that a reviewer has made an error or acted unprofessionally.

5. Booklet

One of the most effective learning techniques is to write notes and refine them during the semester. For more techniques, see the Teaching Philosophy. We observe that many students cannot motivate themselves to write notes on a regular basis.

As an incentive for extensive note-taking, we implement the personal booklet technique in this course. The booklet consists of up to 15 pages of size A5. Every week you can submit or upload one A5 page by a certain deadline. You can fill this page with any content you deem useful for the exam (subject to the conditions described in section Requirements). We will assemble your pages and print them in color to create a booklet. We will give you your personal printed booklet together with the exam tasks. You will have to hand in your booklet together with the exam again.

eating pages for your booklet requires you to think critically. What is the best way to compress the material and write it down clearly and concisely? The booklet encourages this active learning process. If you work in a learning group, it is probably most beneficial if each member of your group prepares a draft of the page, and you discuss the drafts in your group before all group members assemble their pages.

5.1 Requirements

All pages must be in your handwriting, either on paper or by using a tablet. Copying by hand helps your brain remember what is in the booklet – even if you copy blindly from sources like Wikipedia. Ideally, you will know precisely what is and what is not in the booklet so that looking up content during the exam is fast

Screenshots from slides or readings are not acceptable – unless they are drawn by yourself. A non-handwritten headline inserted by some note-taking apps (showing the current date, etc.) is permissible.

Arranging and resizing several handwritten pieces on a page is permissible. The decisive factor is that the content is in your handwriting.

You do not have to include citations on the pages, i. e., it is allowed to reproduce lecture slides, content from Wikipedia, etc. without mentioning the source. It is irrelevant whether booklets of different students contain the same content – as long as they are in the respective students' handwriting.

Developing booklet pages in learning groups is allowed – as long as each booklet page has been entirely handwritten by the respective student.

This rather strict set of regulations may seem pedantic, but it is necessary to maintain equal opportunities.

5.2 Page Submission

The submission of booklet pages is handled via our booklet web application at The booklet application requires you to authenticate via single sign-on. During the first sign-on, the application may ask for your student number. Please enter your student number correctly.

There are two ways to hand in your booklet pages: uploading a scan or submitting on paper. For the latter, you have to use the paper template provided in the booklet tool for the respective page, write your content on it and drop it in the mailbox of the PSI Chair in the foyer of the building WE5. You will find further instructions on the template. We will scan your page at 300 dpi in color.

In the following, we provide some tips for those who intend to upload a scan.

First of all, note that we will print your pages in A5 format on a laser printer. If you write very small, you must take special care to upload a sharp image with high contrast. Check that your submissions are not too pale, cut off at the edges, or fuzzy. If you take photos of your pages, ensure sufficient and – more importantly – even illumination and use a sufficiently high resolution. Consider using a dedicated app that helps with digitizing paper documents.

What is a sufficiently high resolution? Printouts are easy to read when they have at least 300 dpi. Thus, the short side of your page should have at least 1771 pixels, the long side at least 2480 pixels.

You can use the preview function of the booklet tool to adjust the cropping and improve the contrast. To get a feeling of the readability, change the scaling on the computer screen so that the displayed size corresponds to an A5 sheet placed on top of it. If you can read everything at this scale, you should be fine.

6. Examination

There will be a written exam of 60 minutes at the end of the winter semester. The exam will most likely require your on-site presence. The next exam will take place at the end of the summer semester. The exam questions will be in English but you can answer in English or in German.

6.1 Relevant Material

Exam tasks may focus on content from the lectures, the mandatory readings, and the case studies.

Please have a look at the previous exams in VC to become familiar with the style of the exam tasks.

6.2 Authorized Aids

We will give you your booklet together with the exam tasks. Only the booklets distributed by us are authorized, i. e. you are not allowed to bring any further notes to the exam.

Booklets that have not been entirely handwritten by yourself are no authorized aids. It is your responsibility to check whether your booklet meets this criterion. If you notice that one of your pages is not compliant after the submission deadline of the respective page has passed, you can delete it from your booklet until two weeks before the date of the winter semester exam. Replacing the content of deleted pages is not possible.

If we discover during or after the examination that unauthorized aids have been used, we must proceed in accordance with §7 (4) APO, i. e., you will fail the exam. In severe cases and cases of repeated misconduct, additional measures may be imposed by the examination board.

7. Expectations

We love teaching, and we care for you. Please find more information on my expectations in the Teaching Philosophy in VC On occasion, however, we have to make unpopular decisions to make you (more) successful. For me, it is more important to be a good professor than your favorite professor.

We will not focus on teaching you facts. Instead, we want to teach you how to think. In some parts of the course you will have to learn concepts by yourself.

It is your responsibility to

  • abstain from cheating and plagiarism,
  • invest sufficient time for self-studying,
  • prepare before attending lecture and tutorials,
  • consider switching to a part-time studies program if you cannot handle the workload,
  • and to learn to ask effective questions.

We recommend attending the lectures “live” instead of postponing watching the recordings. Also, take notes in hand-writing, post-process your notes, and build learning groups in which everyone works on all tasks individually before discussing them in the group instead of distributing the load within the group.

8. Academic Integrity

We are investing much time to offer you a high-quality academic education. In response, we expect you to act with integrity, namely by behaving per the commonly shared values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. Parts of this section are inspired by the Academic Integrity Tutorial of University of Waterloo (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Cheating on the exam, when preparing your essays, or the booklet pages

  • abuse the trust between you and me,
  • aim at creating an unfair advantage,
  • are disrespectful toward me as your professor, your fellow students, and the institution as a whole, and
  • represents a failure to take personal responsibility.

Any action or attempted action that breaches one or more of the fundamental values associated with academic integrity is considered academic misconduct.

Acts of academic misconduct can interfere with your intellectual development as they obstruct the opportunity to meet a university education's challenges. Moreover, such actions can potentially undermine our students' and faculty's reputation and credibility, which degrades the value of a degree our university. Thus, we cannot tolerate academic misconduct.

Academic misconduct is often a result of overwhelming pressure. Please seek help instead of giving up your integrity. The university offers psychological counseling services to all students. We are also there for you if you struggle, but you have to get in touch with us for that.

9. Contact and Support

Your instructor is Prof. Dr. Dominik Herrmann.

Please ask questions when you are stuck or when you do not understand something. You can ask questions during the lectures or asynchronously.

We prefer to get questions about the content in Rocket.Chat or in the Q&A forum in VC. Please also post answers if you can answer a question of your peers.

Asking questions in German is fine if you are uncomfortable with English. Alternatively, use tools such as for translation.

If you have a question about organizational or examination matters which you do not want to post publicly, you can reach me via e-mail at

10. Textbooks and Readings

This course is loosely based on the following three textbooks:

  • Ibo van de Poel and Lamber Royakkers: Ethics, Technology, and Engineering – an Introduction.
  • Herman T. Tavani: Ethics and Technology: Controversies, Questions, and Strategies for Ethical Computing.
  • Jay Quinn: Ethics for the Information Age.

We will publish links to more focused readings in VC. Some of these readings are mandatory readings.

11. Outline of the Course

Finally, let's preview the content of the course. We will cover the following areas in the order given below:

  1. Introduction
  2. Responsibility
  3. Professional Codes
  4. Critical Reasoning
  5. Moral Judgements
  6. Privacy
  7. Designing Technology
  8. Automated Decisions

Learning Outcomes.  Participants will be able to reflect on their actions as a scientist as well as a computer professional. They learn how to evaluate the trade-offs that are inherent in new technologies and how to design information systems in ways that support the needs of a digital society. Successful participants will obtain the ability to apply ethical thinking to novel problems and potential solutions.