Adversarial Thinking Early in Post-Secondary Education

Posted on 18 July 2021.

Adversarial Thinking (AT) is often described as “thinking like a hacker” or as a “security mindset”. These quasi-definitions are not only problematic in their own right (in some cases, they can be outright circular), they are also too narrow. We believe that AT applies in many other settings as well: in finding ways where machine learning can go wrong, for identifying problems with user interfaces, and for that matter even in software testing and verification.

All these are, however, quite sophisticated computer science concepts. Does that mean AT can only be covered in advanced computer science courses—security, machine learning, formal methods, and the like? Put differently, how much technical sophistication do students need before they can start to engage in it?

We believe AT can be covered starting from a fairly early stage. In this work, we’ve studied its use with (accelerated) introductory post-secondary (university) students. We find that they do very well, but also exhibit some weaknesses. We also find that they are able to reckon with the consequences of systems well beyond their technical capability. Finally, we find that they focus heavily on social issues, not just on technical ones.

In addition to these findings, we have also assembled a rich set of materials covering several aspects of computer science. Students generally found these engaging and thought-provoking, and responded to them with enthusiasm. We think educators would benefit greatly from this collection of materials.

Want to Learn More?

If you’re interested in this, and in the outcomes, please see our paper.