Tutorial Grinnell College Fall, 2008
Computers: Facts, Misconceptions, and Ethical Issues

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This tutorial compares popular views of computing with facts, sorting out misconceptions and exploring underlying intelluctual foundations. Further, since technology has a substantial impact on today's society, the tutorial also will consider ethical and legal issues related to this technology.

While some details are expected to evolve through the semester, a tentative schedule for this course and statements of the various paper assignments are available via links from this page. Students should check these course pages regularly for updated information.


Although news articles regularly describe successful computer applications, the popular press also reinforces many misconceptions. For example, after listening to television, one might think that games dominate the information technology/telecommunications industry (ICT), when in fact computer games represent only about 1.5% of ICT sales in the United States.

To distinguish fact from misconception, this tutorial will review underlying principles of computer hardware, software, and networks. The widespread use of computers in today's society raises deep questions, such as: "can computers be used to solve any problem?", "can we reliably send messages over unreliable communication lines", and "when we receive e-mail, can we be confident who sent it?" The discussion of computer fundamentals will help this tutorial address these and related questions.

This tutorial also will explore principles and practices related to computers and ethics. Discussion questions may include "is it ethical for vendors monitor or change software on an individual's computer without the person's knowledge?", "should e-mail be considered private?", "can electronic voting machines be trusted?", and "who should be held responsible if a computer malfunctions?"


Study of each theme will include consideration of basic concepts and approaches, directions of current research, and, whenever possible, some first hand experiences. In addition, the following goals are common to all tutorials:


Henry M. Walker

Office: Science 3811
Telephone: extension 4208
E-mail: walker@cs.grinnell.edu
Office hours are posted weekly on the bulletin board outside my office.
Additional hours can be scheduled by appointment.
If you wish, you may reserve a half hour meeting by signing up on the weekly schedule.


Toby Fulwiler and Alan R. Hayakawa, The College Writer's Reference, Fifth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2008.

Henry M. Walker, The Tao of Computing: A Down-to-earth Approach to Computer Fluency, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Boston MA, 2004.

Michael J. Quinn, Ethics for the Information Age, Third Edition, Pearson/Addison-Wesley, 2009.

In addition, several articles and references will be assigned. In most cases, these will be distributed in class, accessible through links from the on-line class schedule, or available at Burling Library's Reserve Desk.


The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from August 28 through December 11, excluding Fall Break and Thanksgiving Recess. Most classes will begin at 8:00 am finish by 10:00 am.

While the schedule for this course may evolve somewhat, a Tentative Class Schedule is available online

Course Work

Course work will involve a combination of the following activities.

  1. Research Exercises: Scholarly inquiry regularly requires the investigation of topics. In today's society, this investigation sometimes may involve electronic sources, but other investigations may require a search of printed materials. This tutorial will contain several research exercises to help students become proficient in the location and analysis of materials.

  2. Academic Honesty Exercise: Since academic work consistently must include appropriate citation and referencing, all tutorials include work related to academic honesty and citation. An academic honesty exercise must be satisfactorily completed.

  3. Class Questions: To encourage preparation for class, the tentative class schedule specifies several class periods for which students are to prepare class questions. For such classes, students will be expected to submit (via blackboard) two questions on the readings by 5:00 pm on the day before class. While may types of questions are appropriate (e.g., open-ended, clarifying, connective and relational, involving value conflicts), simple factual questions should be avoided (unless the facts are in dispute).

  4. Class Participation: Some classes will begin with one or two students reviewing in a few sentences the main arguments of the author of a recent reading. Students also should be prepared to indicate what conclusions they have reached regarding recent reading. All students are expected to participate actively in discussions.

  5. News Reports: Most Thursdays, we will begin class with a review of recent news reports that suggest something of popular image of computing (what computer science is, what computing folks do, or how computers are used). All students are expect to present 2 reports during the semester, one before the mid-semester break and one after the break.

  6. Small Group Discussion: Several course activities will take place in the context of small groups. All students are expected to contribute to these discussions. Further, some class sessions will involve reporting from the small groups, and all students should present some of a group's conclusions.

  7. Oral Presentations: Several times during the semester, each student will be expected to make presentations to the class. At first, these presentations may give summaries of readings. Toward the end of the semester, these presentations may include ten-minute discussions of a student's research into a topic.

  8. Papers: Four papers will be due throughout the semester. In addition, assignments will include the rewriting and editing of papers and the reviewing of other papers.



If you have specific physical, psychiatric, or learning disabilities and require accommodations, please let me know early in the semester so that your learning needs may be appropriately met.  You will need to provide documentation of your disability to the Director of Academic Advising. Feel free to talk to me if you have questions or want more information.

Computer Accounts

In addition to general computer accounts which are assigned when they students register at the College, all students in this class will receive accounts on the departmental Linux computers. Some class activities will involve the use of these departmental machines.


The final grade in this course will be based on both the quality of the submitted papers and the student's participation in class activities.

Note: I would be very happy to discuss any part of the course with anyone at any mutually convenient time. Do not hesitate to ask questions or to make comments.

This document is available on the World Wide Web as


created 12 April 1997
last revised 27 August 2008
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For more information, please contact Henry M. Walker at (walker@cs.grinnell.edu)