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COS 490 - Overview

Computers, Ethics and Society

Professor Harlan J. Onsrud
Room 340 Boardman Hall

Course Objectives

This course considers the human and social consequences of technological development and the use of computers in society. Ethical questions of computer use and professional ethics are addressed. The course reviews the current status of information systems law in regard to rights of privacy, freedom of information, confidentiality, work product protection, copyright, security, legal liability, and a range of additional legal and information policy topics. We will investigate the legal difficulties that technological innovations are causing in all of these areas. We will focus particularly on these issues in regard to their impact on the use of digital data work products and databases. Legal options for dealing with the conflicts caused by technological change and likely adaptations of the law over time in response to societal changes will be explored.

A. Class Sessions: On-Campus Students

  • Date and Time: Tues and Thursday, 9:30 am – 10:45 am Tues & Thurs, Room 336 Boardman Hall (or Room 136 depending on enrollment). Normally all on campus students are required to attend in person in the classroom. Sessions are broadcast and recorded for convenience in the event you are ill.
  • Live Broadcast: Available at If you have to travel, you can participate live by logging in as a guest from anywhere with good Internet access. You must use ear buds or headphones when talking. Headphones with a microphone are required if you participate from someplace noisy like a coffee shop.
  • Assignments: Assignments and their due dates and times are posted on the syllabus.
  • Archived Broadcasts: Links to the class broadcasts are made available at the end of each day through the Lectures and Assignments web page. View these if you miss a session
  • Attendance: Class sessions are often highly participatory and therefore attendance is a major part of your semester grade. Every student is typically expected to speak during each class session. Attendance will be taken and your performance during class sessions will be noted by the instructor.
  • Use of Electronic Devices in Class: You are highly encouraged to take notes in class but the preferred mode for note taking for many may be by pen on paper. Multi-year research at MIT of CS students and others has consistently shown that multi-tasking results in substantially decreased comprehension and productivity compared to serial task accomplishment. As such, use of electronic devices by students in the classroom is banned with the following exceptions: (a) you may take notes on your computer if you can prove that you are able to touch type at a rate of 50+ words per minute, (b) you may take notes on a laptop if you use a writing stylus, and (c) you may respond to an expected urgent phone call or message only if you leave the room to do so and then return. All other uses of electronic devices in the classroom will result in marking you absent for the class period.

   Class Sessions: Off-Campus Distance Students (Unavailable option for this semester)

  • Recorded Broadcasts: In-class sessions are recorded on Tues and Thursday at 8:00 – 9:15 and distance students should view them before the Thursday of Friday evening discussion session.  Video links for each session will be posted at (Note: If a live session fails to record due to technical difficulties I will either record again the lecture portion of the session or post a discussion on the same topic from a previous year.)
  • Live Broadcast: Available at Online students may view  the live sessions but are not required to do so. Typically I prefer that you not participate interactively in the session. Online students are not assigned moderator roles.
  • Assignments: Assignments and their due dates and times are posted on the syllabus. Distance students should do the module assignments at any time of their choosing before the indicated deadlines. By example, if you do class assignments only on the weekends, then you should do the assignments for both the next Tuesday and Thursday and thus submit them to FirstClass several days before they are actually due.
  • End of Week Live Audio Chat: View the lectures and in-class student discussions at times of your own choosing during the week but hopefully before the end of week evening live discussion session. The audio technology used for these sessions is through  the Voice Over Internet Protocol of ConnectPro (We can potentially use Skype as a backup.) The optional Thursday or Friday late afternoon discussion session runs from 5:30-6:30 pm unless another mutually agreed upon time with all distance students is arranged. See paragraph E below for further details.
  • Additional Term Paper: Because distance students are not obligated to participate in and graded on class participation or serve as class moderators, they are expected to do an additional term paper. It typically involves the reading of an instructor approved book and providing a detailed briefing of the material and issues contained in the text. See the Lectures and Assignments web page.

B. Course Materials

  • Note that this is an undergraduate course in societal,  information systems law and ethical issues for non-law students. The typical enrolled student is pursuing an undergraduate degree in computer science, computer engineering  or other domains where a knowledge of cyberlaw issues may be of value. As such, substantial time is spent on introductory policy and legal concepts. Further, we will focus on overview books for most of the readings rather than use the text of case law or legislation. (For materials appropriate for a law school course, see for instance, Jessica Littman’s Index to Cyberlaw Courses.)
  • Required readings include several books, chapters of books and articles. If links to readings happen to be dead, check the FirstClass folder under Course Info for archived copies of the open access articles.The reading assignments are much heavier than experienced normally in engineering or science courses so you should begin them immediately and pace yourself to ensure their completion.  The required textbook should be available through online book suppliers and is typically available in a new, used or rental version. Most of the other readings are available openly on the web through open access licenses. They are also often available by ordering them from online sources if you prefer published paper copies. (Some titles of older books used in past offerings of the course are at books.)
  • Course lectures will NOT correspond exactly with the readings.  Additional reading materials will be made available and linked from the web syllabus over time.  Geographic data conflict examples are often used in this course to illustrate principles.

C. Communications

  • You must have a FirstClass account for this course. See if you do not yet have an account. You will communicate with other classmates and the instructor through the COS 490 FirstClass folder and deliver all out-of-class assignments to the FirstClass assignment folder for the course.  I recommend that you download the FirstClass client software to your computer if you have not already done so. You should always be able to deliver your materials and access the materials of others by logging on to the FirstClass website or by using the client software.
  • Distance students (Unavailable option for this semester) must also have a Skype account for this course (see Please forward your Skype username to after enrolling in the course. If the ConnectPro technology fails for an evening discussion session, the instructor may initiate a conference call on Skype. Note: Because video on Skype can cause band width problems on conference calls with large numbers of participants, please set your preferences as follows: Skype>Preferences>Calls>Uncheck”Start video automatically at the beginning of a call” and Skype>Preferences>Privacy>Allow video & screen sharing from “Nobody.”

D. Important Notices

Important Notices
Academic Honesty: Academic honesty is expected.  Plagiarism is unacceptable in this course and will result in a failing grade.  “Although a writer may use other persons’ words and thoughts, they must be acknowledged as such.” Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert, MLA Handbook (Modern Language Association) 1977, p. 4.

E. Instructor Office Hours & Discussion Sessions

  • For one-on-one discussions with the instructor, E-mail to is often the simplest way to get a message through and a response. You are also welcome to call my offfice at 207-581-2175 or try me at my Skype username of harlan.onsrud
  • Sometimes a faster or better way to get help is to post your question to other students in the course in the COS 490 folder on FirstClass.
  • On-campus Students: I am in the office most days and you are welcome to drop by or call at any time although appointments are sometimes better for longer discussions.
  • On-line Students (Live Discussion  Sessions – NOT an option this semester): An online session has been established on either Thursday or Friday evening from 5:30-6:30 pm East Coast US time (or other mutually agreed upon time) for all students taking the course by on-line methods. (Note: Set up a personal world clock at to track the equivalent time in your time zone.) Simply go to the ConnectPro web site established for the course found at and use the audio facilities or the written chat to ask questions.


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