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This post first appeared on Educating Modern LearnersWhose Copyright Is It?
Last year, the Prince George’s County Board of Education (in Maryland) proposed a new policy that would grant the district copyright over work that staff and students had done, meaning that, as The Washington Post reported, "a picture drawn by a first-grader, a lesson plan developed by a teacher or an app created by a teen would belong to the school system, not the individual.”
The proposed policy read, in part:
"Works created by employees and/or students specifically for use by the Prince George’s County Public Schools or a specific school or department within PGCPS, are properties of the Board of Education even if created on the employee’s or student’s time and with use of their materials.”
The proposal apparently came about because district leaders had seen a presentation about the possibilities for creating new curricula using iPads, and many observers speculated that the district wanted “a piece of the action.” No doubt, sites selling teacher-created lesson plans have become big business in recent years, with companies like TeachersPayTeachers touting the millions of dollars that educators have earned from their marketplace. The district proposal would have prevented its teachers from selling their materials online.
Many districts already have in place policies that claim copyright over employees’ work — particularly if it is done while at work or on work-issued equipment. But the Prince George’s County measure would have gone farther by saying that all work, done on one’s own time or on one’s own devices – was owned by the district. Furthermore, it took the usual step to claim copyright over students’ work.
No surprise, the policy was put on hold after public outcry over the move and questions about its legality (after all, students, unlike teachers, are not school employees).Copyright in a Digital Age
The Prince George’s County School Board was rebuked (in the media at least) for making such sweeping claims to copyright, but there are important lessons to be learned here for all districts. Thanks to new technologies, we should be asking more questions about the ownership of content and the ownership of data. (EML has explored the latter as it relates to student privacy.)
Our questions cannot simply involve how best to assign or protect copyright. Our concerns must not simply address profits. We should talk about creativity and control.
As open education advocate David Wiley has argued, new technologies should prompt us to rethink how copyright is applied to education, particularly if we want to take full advantage of what a move to “digital” can afford us:
The Internet has frequently been compared to the printing press, which was in turn frequently compared to the process of writing books by hand. Today, the cost of having a 250-page book transcribed by hand is about $250. The cost of printing that same book with a print-on-demand service is about $5. The cost of copying an online version of that same book (e.g., an ePub file) is about $0.0008. The cost of shipping either the handwritten or printed book is about $5. The cost of distributing an electronic copy of the book over the Internet is approximately $0.0007.
Clearly, the Internet has empowered us to copy and share with an efficiency never before known or imagined. However, long before the Internet was invented, copyright law began regulating the very activities the Internet makes essentially free (copying and distributing). Consequently, the Internet was born at a severe disadvantage, as preexisting laws discouraged people from realizing the full potential of the network.
Since the invention of the Internet, copyright law has been “strengthened” to further restrict the Internet’s copying and sharing capabilities. While existing laws, business models, and educational practices make it difficult for instructors and learners to leverage the full power of the Internet to access high-quality, affordable learning materials, open educational resources can be freely copied and shared (and revised and remixed) without breaking the law. Open educational resources allow the full technical power of the Internet to be brought to bear on education. OER allow exactly what the Internet enables: free sharing of educational resources with the world.
Although OER are often talked about in terms of cost-savings – free and openly licensed textbooks, for example, as opposed to the proprietary materials sold by traditional publishers – we should think more broadly about what “open” might mean in terms of our educational practices.Openly Licensed Materials: Only the First Step
To be sure, there is much confusion about how copyright works. What does copyright enable or restrict? What counts (in the US at least) as “fair use”? Can copyrighted materials be used in the classroom? If so, how?
Creative Commons licenses — which are built on top of copyright and do not change ownership — do enable others to copy and distribute materials without having to ask for the copyright holder’s express permission. These “open licenses” make educational content more “remixable,” so that lessons and textbooks for example, can be readily adapted to new settings and new circumstances.
Open licenses make sharing easier, and as Wiley has argued:
Education is, first and foremost, an enterprise of sharing. In fact, sharing is the sole means by which education is effected. If an instructor is not sharing what he or she knows with students, there is no education happening.
This ethos about sharing is a core piece of “open education,” and while the licenses facilitate that ethos, it’s the ethos itself that is of particular significance, I think. The open licenses are a necessary condition, if you will, for bringing education into the Internet Age, but they’re just the starting ground for rethinking “who owns” and “who controls” teaching and learning. That is, you can use an openly licensed textbook, and not really change any traditional classroom practices. An open license is just the first step.
Returning to the Prince George’s County story: what do its attempts to claim copyright over teacher and student creations suggest about its position on creation and creativity? What does it mean that we think about digital work as “school property”? What does the proposal say about where the benefit of “school work” – students’ labor or teachers’ labor – is supposed to accrue?
I read a wonderful story this morning of a school that created a makerspace in a corridor. A broken computer was placed, in pieces, on a table near to the student lockers. A sign was placed next to it challenging students to put it back together and make it work, and a prize was offered to the successful student. Within a very short time, one of the boys presented the computer, fully operational, to his teachers. He was so thrilled that he had been able to fix it, he almost forgot to claim his prize. Several other students asked if there could be other challenges set, so they could also test their abilities. Some of the girls requested a chance to do the same challenge again, because they wanted to show the boys they were just as capable. There was general excitement in the school, because the students had been offered the chance to show off their skills, and demonstrate their knowledge.
The cartoon at the top of this post says it all. Life is about joining up the dots, connecting things together, making sense of the world. Some environments encourage the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, while others demand that you apply your experience. But there is another level we can all aspire to, where we have freedom to join the dots in any way we wish, ways that are unique to us, in a manner that suits our personal style or personality. To reach that creative level, there needs to be freedom. There might be a challenge of some kind, to demonstrate how well you can do, an opportunity to imagine, to create. The bottom line is that creativity of any kind is best assessed by the individual themselves. If you have painted a picture, or written a song, it will often mean more to you than it will to others. The sense of achievement you can feel once you have created something you can be proud of, is usually reward enough.
So here's hoping that more schools decide to invest in this approach and provide makerspaces for their students, creative opportunities for them to show what they can do, and environments in which they can try out new ideas without risk of penalty.
Image from Deviant Art
Joining the dots by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.Posted by Steve Wheeler from Learning with e's