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An invitation back to the classroom: Stanford course for working professionals centers ethics in discussions of technology

In its fourth year, "Ethics, Tech + Public Policy for Practitioners" experiments with setting up long-term communities of professionals interested in responsible tech governance.
Jacinda Ardern smiling as she is sworn in as prime minister of New Zealand, flanked by officials
Jacinda Ardern, shown here being sworn in as New Zealand's prime minister in October 2017, was one of the guest speakers in a Stanford course that tackled ethics and technology. Photo credit: Governor-General of New Zealand (Creative Commons)
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It was 5 p.m. Pacific Time on a Wednesday. While Silicon Valley was ending its workday, dozens of tech professionals from around the world were logging on to Zoom to participate in Ethics, Technology + Public Policy for Practitioners. The seven-week course was taught digitally in fall 2023 by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein, three professors whose disciplinary grounding spans philosophy, computer science, and public policy, at Stanford University, supported by the course’s managing director, Megan Mellin, MSM ’19.

On this evening in October, some 250 participants gathered via Zoom to learn from the advice and experience of Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand and now special envoy for the Christchurch Call, a global initiative that aims to combat online extremist content in a rapidly changing world. In 2019, after a terrorist live streamed an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Ardern felt there was an urgent need to act and helped to establish the Call, a global, multi-stakeholder effort. 

“You are, in my mind, discussing one of the most important issues of our age,” Ardern told the class as she began her remarks. “It strikes directly at the heart of the issue of healthy democracy.” The class that day was grappling with a question about the responsibility of platforms such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) to regulate the speech of their users: Should platforms be held accountable for what users post or are they simply passing along the speech of others? And, based on this answer, what might each of these practitioners do to help drive digital dialog in more positive directions, for their users, community members, and businesses?

Learners and instructors asked about how the Christchurch Call might apply to different countries with different ideas about freedom of speech. They inquired about building trust between tech companies and governments and about the personal challenges of leading a country through difficult times. What could they learn from the leadership and process of issuing the Christchurch Call? And what could they take away for their own leadership and positional responsibility as key decision-makers in tech industry, government, and broader civil society?

Author Ursula Le Guin leaning forward on her arms in a black and white photo next to an illustration of her story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omegas"

An unusual Stanford course unlocks ethics in my tech life

Erik Brown, associate creative director for Stanford Digital Education, writes about his experience exploring, along with other tech professionals, how to design technology that serves the public good. 

Conversations like this one — about policy and technology, but also about living and leading — frame the purpose, intention, and unique online environment of the course. Rather than just focus on theory, this program aims to identify the key questions practitioners must face to address day-to-day ethical questions they encounter in their work with technology. By coming together to grapple with these issues directly, learners are engaging in a direct process of learning and inventing, rethinking ways to work together to govern technology as interdisciplinary learners and leaders in a rapidly changing society.

Robert Reich, professor of political science

“The very premise of this class is that technology is not like a gravitational force,” said Rob Reich, Stanford’s McGregor-Girand Professor of Social Ethics of Science and Technology. “It is possible to anticipate and plan for what technology delivers to humanity. As a result, we have agency in how technologies affect society.” One of the learning objectives of the course is to equip learners with the leadership and facilitation skills to bring ethical considerations to bear in technical spaces — creating room for agency, responsibility, and choice between technical impulse and institutional and industry response.

A ginger beer bar in Seattle

Ethics, Tech + Public Policy began in 2019 as an undergraduate offering (known as CS182), where the goal was to confront a culture of unfettered techno-optimism that the professors had begun to notice among their students. By reaching students early in their careers, the instructors hoped to change the culture of tomorrow’s tech professionals, encouraging them to more carefully consider the harmful ramifications of new technologies and to explore ways to mitigate those negative effects.

Stanford political science professor Jeremy Weinstein lecturing before a video wall with a tiled display of students on their own screens
In an earlier iteration of the course, Professor Jeremy Weinstein lectured to students via Zoom in an experimental multi-screen format. Copyright and credit: Bob Smith, MSME, ’82

A year later, feeling that they needed to have a more immediate impact, the trio partnered with the venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta to spin off a version of the course designed for tech professionals in Silicon Valley. During the pandemic, it went virtual with support from Bloomberg Beta’s program teams, then expanded to applicants around the United States and the world. The latest iteration, launched in fall 2023, moved into Stanford’s digital learning ecosystem, with continued support from Bloomberg Beta and a focus on building a “community of practice” among learners after they graduate.

Matthew Rascoff photo
Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education

Ethics, Tech + Public Policy is more than a course,” said Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education, whose office brokered the transition of the program back to Stanford.  “It’s a learning community that fosters essential debates among product managers and policymakers, across lines of geographies, organizations, and career stages. This demonstrates the potential for mission-driven digital education that is built on Stanford’s infrastructure, leveraging our amazing faculty and educational mission to make direct, immediate impact on key, emerging issues.”

But the last offering of the course almost didn’t happen. After three iterations, the teaching team had decided not to run the course again.

That is, until a chance encounter at Rachel’s Ginger Beer in Seattle, in November 2022.

Mehran Sahami, professor of computer science and engineering

Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein were giving a talk about the course and their recently published book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot. Megan Goering Mellin, GSB MSM ’19, who had taken the course in 2022 as a recent alumna from the Graduate School of Business, was in the audience. “I heard they weren’t going to do the class again. The issue was too pressing. We had to do something to intervene,” she said.

 

Mellin confronted the professors after the event, insisting on the impact the winter 2022 experience had had on her cohort and the wider group of practitioner learners in the months that followed the 2022 course. She argued that the original reason for the course — to promote a more humane technical culture in the face of disinformation, democratic backsliding, layoffs and structural changes in the tech sector, and the erosion of privacy — was more pressing than ever. The three professors could set up that space — even online, even just for seven weeks — in a way that no one else was positioned to or would be able to deliver, she told them. 

Soon after, preparations began to offer the course with a refreshed approach and reach with Mellin as the course’s managing director and program lead.

Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science

After nine months of preparation, Ethics, Tech + Public Policy launched on Stanford Online in fall 2023 with its largest enrollment yet, more than 200 practitioners working at a range of organizations — from Meta to the State Department and PBS Kids to MIT. They logged on every week to listen to lectures, ask questions, and then break into 10-person groups, or “cohorts,” to talk about what they were learning and how to apply the ideas to their lives. The participants’ discussions continued afterwards in the course communication channels on Slack.

The course cost $300 with scholarships offered to participants who could not afford the fee. Learners were expected to do a few hours of readings before each class and be prepared to discuss. After finishing, participants were awarded certificates of completion. The teaching team also shared their curriculum with more than 250 additional asynchronous learners worldwide who followed the readings at their own pace. 

A living system of learners

Megan Goering Mellin, MSM ’19

“We have a living system of learners and leaders,” said Mellin in an interview. Some participants used the course to produce work to support policymakers, others collated the rules that companies have about using ChatGPT, and another group explored convening an EthicsCon. “People from across the world and sector are reflecting deeply on their locus of control, their locus of concern, and their locus of influence,” Mellin said. “A multitude of diverse experiences are now unfolding on different timelines.”

Even several months after the course has ended, its Slack channels remain an active stream of articles and ideas. Graduates log in to share snippets of their interactions with ChatGPT and their continued musings or proposals about tech regulation, with others jumping into the comments to react and debate. By February, learners had proposed more than a dozen “Action Cycle Groups,” led by course alumna and past cohort leader Kathy Copic. More than 90 course alumni continue to gather this spring across multiple time zones, working on projects ranging from drafting policy memos to holding discussions about AI’s impact on the Global South.

In the course’s final session, Reich compared the course’s mission to the artistic vision of Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her goal is to enable people to rethink their relationship with the world by making monuments that hold and create space. Lin said, “I want to create spaces that make people question their assumptions.” 

The course makes “spaces for people to think, but not dictating what to think,” Reich explained. “We’ve tried to provide a container to allow us all to think together without prescribing for you what any correct answer is.” Whatever answers they reach, learners are encouraged to do more than reflect. “Ethics should ultimately inspire us to action,” he added. “We have no other choice but to act.”

Don’t lose your optimism

In the seven weeks, the course participants discussed current controversies with speakers from companies, like Sam Altman, chief executive of OpenAI; civil society, like Alastair Mactaggart, board chair and founder of the advocacy group Californians for Consumer Privacy; and government, like Ardern.

“I come at these issues as a policymaker, someone with experience as a regulator, and with some understanding of the limitations of regulation,” Ardern said as she introduced herself to the class.

While acknowledging the thorny challenge of restricting hate speech online, she discussed the potential to manage it better by treating the platforms as if they were publishers, responsible for maintaining certain standards for acceptable speech. 

She noted that regulators did not necessarily even need to define what would be unacceptable speech, as the platform companies’ policies already have done so. In many cases, she said, there are already terms of service agreements in place that apply a standard for hate speech that most reasonably minded people would agree with. “The issue is the degree to which they are upheld on a day-to-day basis and the resourcing that is necessarily required to uphold them,” she said.

In some respects, she concluded, a big step would be a straightforward demand to the platforms: “Uphold your own terms of service, and the world will probably be better,” she said.

Ardern logged off the call after a spirited and candid Q&A, and her words continued to resonate with students. First in the breakout room discussions, where students talked about platform power and regulation. Then, after the Zoom room had emptied, her visit continued to resurface in Slack in the weeks that followed. Even after the course wrapped up, her words stuck with many participants as a reminder of hope in the face of their daily challenges to create, govern, and engage with technology.

“Don’t lose your optimism,” Ardern advised in her final word to the class on that evening in fall 2023. “It’s a difficult time, but hold on to a sense of optimism through all the work that you do.”

The course was made possible in part by Frank McCourt in association with Stanford’s partnership with the Project Liberty Foundation. It also received support from Bloomberg Beta and a variety of Stanford groups, including McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford Center for Professional Development, HAI, and Stanford Digital Education. If you’re interested in signing up for the course in fall 2024, you can visit the Ethics + Tech course website.


Jonathan Rabinovitz is communications director for Stanford Digital Education (SDE) and Parth Sarin is an SDE graduate fellow.

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Jacinda Ardern's photo was accessed on Wikimedia Commons and is used through the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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