Computing Cases Header, Picture of a Keyboard with the text "" printed over it


Teaching Tools

Teaching with Cases

Social Impact Analysis

Computer Ethics Curriculum

Curricula Index

Case Materials



Hughes Aircraft

Ethics in Computing Links

Contact Us

Don't get stuck using just one type of case.

To say that one plans to use "the case method" in a class only introduces a minor bit of constraint on what will in fact be done. Cases can be used simply as lecture illustrations, or an entire class can go through cases in a very interactive manner. Cases can take 10 minutes or a semester to discuss. In order to provide some understanding of the range of cases and case methods available, we present a taxonomy of both the types of cases and the types of methods that might be used with cases.

  • Historical vs Hypothetical cases. Many cases are based in actual experience in the field. These provide the sort of excitement and immediate relevance that help students recognize the importance of ethical enquiry. Other cases are hypothetical, fictional, or abstract, and have much of the impact of the historical case removed. But the hypothetical case allows the case writer the freedom to structure, abstract, and focus the discussion on precisely the issues of concern. Neither approach is better than the other, but their usefulness depends on the goal. Historical cases' emotional impact is helpful in connecting students to their real responsibilities as professionals, while hypothetical cases' flexibility and focus are helpful in introducing students to specific issues and their variations.
  • Thick or Thin cases. Cases can range from the very simple half-page or one paragraph descriptions one can find at ( to the enormous detail of the cases found at here. Thin cases are useful for abstracting a single point and focusing work on that point. Thick cases can give the student practice in making ethical decisions in the full context of the messy real world. Of course, one cannot simply dump students into a thick case to sink or swim (sink will be the outcome). These can be introduced piecemeal, as "thinner" cases and have the complexity built up slowly. Or student might be provided with a framework to guide them as they consider the entire case. Again, neither thick not thin is better, and usefulness depends on the particular goal.
  • Good vs. Bad News cases. This distinction (and the next two) come from Harris et al. (See Harris, Charles E., Pritchard, Michael S., & Rabins, Michael J. (1999) Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 2nd Edition, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Belmont, CA, pp. 60-72). The tendency in ethics cases is to have only bad news cases, cases in which some bad outcome occurs because of poor choices. This can grab students’ imaginations (people are highly motivated to avoid bad outcomes) but can also give students the impression that SEE is primarily about avoiding harm. Bad news cases should be balanced with cases of morally exemplary scientists and engineers as well as with good choices toward good outcomes made by ordinary scientists and engineers. Again the point is to choose the approach based on the purpose.
  • Big vs. Small News cases. Many cases available are about big news, about things that show up in the newspaper. But almost by definition these are rare events, and it can be hard for students to imagine themselves caught in a widespread fraud or catastrophic software safety case. Small news cases are about the everyday decisions that scientists and engineers make in the way they handle reporting, data collection, process management, personnel and other day-to-day issues. Again there is a tradeoff. Students can more easily imagine this happening to them, but the cases can be about less exciting issues. In both good vs. bad and big vs. small, the real determinant of success is often in the framing of the case for the student.
  • Evaluative vs Participative cases. There are two perspectives from which to write and discuss scenarios: the evaluator or judge perspective and the participant perspective. In the evaluator perspective, the student takes up a standpoint from outside the case and evaluates the participants and their deeds. In the participant perspective, the student takes on the role of one of the participants and makes a decision from that perspective. Participative cases are written differently; they end abruptly at a moment of decision. This encourages the students to resolve the case by making and defending some decision. Evaluative cases are useful for introducing and practicing different ethical principles and concepts. Participative cases help students to practice integrating ethical considerations into designing and implementing solutions to real world problems; they also allow students to practice making decisions under real world constraints such as uncertainty and time pressures. Either type of case can be used with a range of pedagogical methods.

All cases fall on one point of each of these dimensions. For instance, Rich Epstein's Case of the Killer Robot is a hypothetical, thick, big/bad news case, framed from the evaluator point of view (see Epstein, R. (1996) The Case of the Killer Robot: Stories About the Professional, Ethical and Societal Dimensions of Computing, John Wiley, New York.). The Therac-25 case on this site is a historical, thick, big/bad news, and framed from the evaluator point of view. But, one can use it for a wide range of pedagogical purposes, particularly if one breaks the case up into smaller pieces done consecutively.