The National Ethics Project (NEP) is a mixed-methods research project that seeks to understand comprehensively where and how ethics instruction occurs in the US by focusing on the key perspectives of students, instructors, and institutions. It brings together educators, practitioners, and researchers to illuminate areas of need and to develop high-impact interventions. NEP will give individuals and institutions the tools to assess how ethics is (or is not) being taught at their institution, and it will empower them to grow their ethics education initiatives.
It's been nearly forty years since the 1980 Hastings Center Report, the last comprehensive study of ethics education in higher education. Much has changed in the intervening decades. Rapid technological, politico-economic, and demographic shifts have altered the higher education landscape, motivating the need to revisit the purpose and practices of ethics instruction. The societal demand for relevant and responsive ethics instruction is now outpacing capacities at most colleges and universities. The first step toward improvement is to determine the state of current practices, in particular the goals of instructors, the needs of the students, and the commitments of institutions.
Current partner institutions include Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, DePauw University’s Prindle Institute for Ethics, Stanford University’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, University of South Florida’s Department of Journalism and Digital Communication, and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Additionally, we are in conversation with the Kegley Institute of Ethics at California State University, Bakersfield and the Leadership and Ethics Center in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin. Planning grants from the Spencer Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, along with financial commitments from our partner institutions, have enabled the NEP to build a solid foundation for ongoing research into ethics instruction and needed interventions.
NEP Mission and Goals
The NEP creates and fosters a sustainable and evolving community of researchers, educators, and practitioners devoted to improving opportunities for ethical reflection and action. We aim to expand our analyses of ethics instruction in higher education to a representative set of universities and colleges across the country; share our tools and methodologies widely with instructors and administrators; and connect our advancements in university settings to other important stakeholders by collaborating with K-12 educators, regional/community institutions, business leaders, and government policymakers. The project emerges from the important work of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) over the past twenty-five years and is poised to leverage APPE’s extensive reach by partnering through its community of ethics center directors and hundreds of members. A dissemination structure for NEP’s work is already in place through a new website hosted by APPE and The Prindle Institute for Ethics.
Our mixed-methods research projects investigate the perspectives of institutions, instructors, and students in order to identify current challenges and aspirations in ethics education. The pilot phase of the work has already yielded new analytical tools that, for the next phase, will enable us to capture a complete picture of the state of ethics education today and make forward-looking recommendations based on existing gaps and unmet needs. The tools developed so far include:
- A web-scraping and coding tool allows us to locate and identify institutional commitments to ethics education efficiently and to assess those commitments in relation to how they are operationalized on campuses (e.g., mission statements, course offerings, ethics center activities). Preliminary studies indicate that ethics educational opportunities tend to be siloed and that there is fertile ground for improved intentionality and integration.
- A custom-designed course identification algorithm is able to identify a broad set of courses in which ethical issues are central by incorporating more than 300 relevant terms. Institutions can use this tool to rapidly determine the courses across campus where students are learning about ethics.
- A new instructor learning theory survey transforms how we think about assessing and improving ethics instruction by linking validated assessment measures to a diverse set of instructors’ own learning goals.
- A student-facing version of the survey allows us to map student experiences against instructor goals to identify points of alignment and misalignment.
- A design-thinking-based interview protocol elicits student experiences and perceptions of where and how ethics learning on campus is salient to students, which provides a basis for developing and testing responsive curricular interventions.
In addition to these methodological developments, we are planning a set of conferences to address undergraduate education about technology and ethics. Our workshops will bring together, for the first time to our knowledge, growing interest in tech and ethics with the broader challenges and opportunities in ethics education that the NEP examines.
Andrew Cullison, Prindle Institute for Ethics, DePauw University
Deni Elliott, Department of Journalism and Digital Communication, University of South Florida
Jess Miner, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University
Anne Newman, McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford University
Maggie Schein, Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment Lab, Harvard University