Boston — No matter that the topic is computers. The lesson is ethics. And what must be taught - not to steal, not to trespass on, or damage someone else's property - is as old as the day the first teacher and the first student sat down together.
That assessment comes from educators across the United States in the wake of a number of highly publicized instances of student abuse of computer skills.
As the surge of new information technologies enters both the home and classroom, the number of young people roaming without authorization through some of the nation's most sophisticated computer systems has increased alarmingly. Estimates run into the hundreds and possibly thousands of students, according to experts on computer crime.
The potential for abuse presents a formidable but vital task for schools, ''because they cannot just teach computer literacy; they must teach computer ethics,'' says Ken Komoski, executive director of a 15-year-old nonprofit organization called the Educational Products Information Exchange.
There are two aspects of computer abuse that schools must address, according to Marc Tucker, director of the Washington-based Project on Information Technology and Education, funded by the Carnegie Corporation: the unauthorized copying of software programs, which is a violation of copyright law; and unauthorized entry into data bases.
The first is an electronic version of photocopying someone else's material without getting permission or paying compensation. The second is breaking someone else's computer code by means of a telephone linkup and then elec-tronically trespassing in a computer memory by either reading or rearranging information.
Making a paper copy of a few pages out of a textbook is one thing, says Mr. Tucker. But when three or four entire textbooks can be found on one computer disk - a disk that took months to compile and can be copied in a few minutes - the seriousness of the issue comes into focus.
''There are districts that not only copy software,'' says Tucker, ''they hire students to do this for them.'' They are breaking the law ''for a . . . purpose.''
''Kids are enormously adept at putting the pieces together in seeing [if] parents and teachers practice what they preach,'' Tucker adds. The example set by adults will influence a student's entire approach to computer use, he says.
At first glance, the problem appears to be a new issue for society and schools. ''But it isn't,'' says Mr. Komoski. ''The only thing new is the technology - certainly not the ethics.'' After parents, schools are the natural standard-bearers, he says. ''A computer isn't virtuous; individuals are.''
''The media are startled by how sophisticated kids are, but we've dealt with it right from the beginning. Ten years ago, it was plagiarizing term papers,'' says Fred Keplinger, a teacher and programming instructor at a high school in Los Gatos, Calif.
In programming class, he says, he asks students how they would like somebody to steal 30 or 40 hours of their time? Or invade their privacy? ''They can understand those terms,'' says Mr. Keplinger.
A policy statement on copyright issues recently has been certified by the International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE), the largest nonprofit computer-educator organization in the United States. The statement helps clarify which electronic data can be protected under copyright. Many of the major educational software (courseware) producers now may be willing to offer discounts or royalty arrangements with school districts that adopt the ICCE standards, says Educational Products Information Exchange director Komoski.
Mr. Tucker argues that in both the short and the long run schools must take the copyright law seriously and do as much as they can to set responsible standards of computer use, ''so that software producers will continue to produce educational material.'' If schools don't do that, he warns, ''they'll be killing the goose that lays the golden egg.''
''Schools must teach students that it is not ethical to copy disks; it is not moral to get into [someone else's] data base,'' says Pat Sturdivant, assistant superintendent of technology for the Houston Independent School District.
''Our students will deal with a world computers have made. So we're inculcating a value, not just a skill, when we talk of computer literacy,'' says Ms. Sturdivant. ''The value is that each student will be responsible for his or her own lifelong learning in computer technology.''
One way the Houston public schools have tackled the problem was to create a new job category in the educational computing field - a teacher/technologist. The district spends 296 hours training an educator in all facets of educational technology. Ethics with computers is emphasized.
The district plans to have a teacher/technologist in each of its 260 schools; the first 35 entered classrooms this fall. It is hoped that students, teachers, and parents will consider this person an expert on computer matters.
Houston also requires that before any school gets a purchase order for a computer, the principal must take a 20-hour workshop on the subject. Ethical use is highlighted, and principals are made aware of the crucial role they play in establishing the climate of values in the school environment.
For further information on setting ethical computer-use standards contact EPIE & Consumers Union, PO Box 620, Stony Brook, N.Y. 11790, or ICCE, Department of Computer and Information Science, University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore. 97403.