by Andy Phippen
Research at the University of Plymouth has shown encouraging indications that the next generation of IT professionals is willing to take environmental responsibility seriously. With awareness and the opportunity to reflect, it would seem that students are ready and willing to engage with the sustainability agenda. However, the research also highlights the responsibility of higher education institutions to provide a computer science curriculum that addresses more than simply technical and theoretical knowledge.
The IT industry is, quite rightly, criticized for its contribution to carbon emissions and for not taking its responsibility to the environment seriously. The sector contributes around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a similar proportion to the aviation industry, and its contribution is growing and will continue to increase as the world's industries become increasingly reliant on large-scale data centres and outsourced services. Yet green IT still seems to be a minority interest in corporate IT.
However, the fault may not lie with practitioners but with educators. Until recently education and recruitment into the IT sector has been based solely on technical ability and problem-solving skills. Only in the last few years has the visibility of the sector been such that social responsibility has become an important issue. This is partly the result of the widespread social and corporate adoption of ICT.
One might argue, therefore, that the current generation of IT professionals was not equipped by their professional development to effectively reflect upon the social implications of the technology and services they develop. The next generation will not have this excuse. Given that IT is now arguably a graduate-level profession, it should fall to the universities to take responsibility for educating their students not just in the technical and theoretical aspects of the subject, but also the wider issues of professional practice and social accountability.
In early 2009, a study at the University of Plymouth, UK, evaluated the willingness of final-stage IT students to engage with environmental issues. These students were coming to the end of their studies and had at least two and a half years’ learning in IT-related subjects, most of which had been technical. In addition, many had been on industrial placements, so had first-hand experience of the sector.
The students were given lectures on sustainability in general, considering the implications of carbon emissions and climate change, and then on the responsibility of the IT sector, including issues such as power consumption and the impact of waste electrical equipment. They were then set that task of writing a reflective report on their own career aspirations within the sector, by drawing on recent news stories from the industry press that made them consider issues of sustainability.
Content analysis of the reports showed a number of encouraging issues emerging from the students’ reflections on their role in the future IT sector:
1. There is a lack of awareness of the sustainability issues associated with IT. The most frequently recurring theme was that students had never really considered the environmental implications of their chosen career path during their degree and work to date.
2. Students are environmentally aware and can relate green IT to their own feelings of social responsibility. A number of students stated that they would think carefully about working for a company without a green IT policy now they had become aware of the importance of these issues.
3. They view green IT as a problem that can only be solved by hardware. Several students commented that, because they wished to become software developers, they could not see how they could contribute to the green IT agenda.
4. They can see the PR potential in green IT. Demonstrating awareness of the value of good PR, some students felt that knowledge of green IT might be good in order to make them more attractive to potential clients.
The results of the work show some very encouraging implications for the future IT workforce, in that once made aware of environmental issues, they are keen to engage. However, it also places the onus very much on educators to ensure this awareness is promoted at an early stage. At Plymouth there is a strategy to bring ethical considerations and professional practice into the curriculum at an early stage, and to ensure there is continuity of education around social responsibility and the means to develop these concepts alongside more complex technical issues. However, in comparing the computer science curricula at other institutions, we find this seems to be the exception rather than the norm.
If we are to generate widespread change within the IT workforce, social responsibility and ethical practice needs to lie at the heart, rather than at the periphery, of the computer science and IT curriculum. Encouragingly, it seems that if their institutions give them the opportunity, students are willing to engage.
School of Management, University of Plymouth, UK