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Finding Teachable Moments in Survey Courses

At least in one regard, Jeff Bezos' letter couldn't have arrived at a more opportune time.
Feb | 11 | 2019


Feb | 11 | 2019

I’ve learned over the last six months about the challenges associated with teaching ambitious survey courses. Introduction to Information Systems certainly qualifies. In short, professors cover oodles of material at a rapid pace. As a result, we don’t spend a great deal of time on any given topic.1 In other words, survey courses by definition trade depth for breadth—a tension that’s not always easy for professors to navigate.

The breadth-depth tension is not always easy for professors to navigate.

Here’s an example. Last week, I covered the highlights of both security and ethics—both of which warrant longer discussions in different courses. In a few hours, I’ll give three largely similar 50-minute lectures on privacy to a group of mostly college sophomores. We’ll soon shift to relational databases and Structured Query Language. After the break, we’ll move to Python. (Yeah, we’re not lacking for content.)

What has changed since last time?

I reviewed the slides from last semester’s privacy lecture. To be sure, the slide deck still holds up as is. For instance, Google and Facebook still know a frightening amount about many things.2 That certainly hasn’t changed.

Nevertheless, ours is not a stagnant world. A few days before every class, I ask myself what new material I can incorporate into the upcoming lecture that will resonate with students. I can’t imagine not thinking this way. Self-improvement and staying current are core tenets of my teaching philosophy.

In this case, I didn’t have to think for a very long time. AMI’s attempt to blackmail Jeff Bezos is front and center. What other story stitches together security, privacy, and ethics in a contemporary way? I’m hard-pressed to think of one. The story is the very definition of a teachable moment.

I’ll open the class with a few minutes from this video:

I suspect that I’ll see a few light bulbs over my students’ heads this morning.

Simon Says

To be sure, the prior privacy lecture still works without Bezos’ letter and its fallout. If I were a student today, though, I’d want my professors to integrate current events into their classes as much as possible.


  1. To be fair, future courses cover just about every topic in far greater detail.
  2. Robert McNamee’s Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe is a painful reminder of that.

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