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Class Act: Intellectuals' Property Rights

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In the 1980s teen comedy Real Genius, there’s a great, throwaway visual gag that has stuck with me over the years. In an otherwise clich├ęd montage of college life, we see the scene of a professor lecturing to a room full of students, along with a few tape recorders on empty desks. A few scenes later, we see the same professor lecturing to a room now filled with more tape recorders than students. In the final scene, he’s not there at all. In his place stands an enormous reel-to-reel tape deck playing the lecture to a room full of tape recorders.

In my own undergraduate years at a small college before email and the web, some professors did not permit recorders, or they required that the devices come to class accompanied by their owners. I could understand why faculty members didn’t want recordings to stand in for attendance, but I was a little puzzled by the professors who banned recorders outright.

When I went to a much bigger state university for graduate school, I saw this kind of debate writ larger. For many large lecture classes, you could buy notes from the local copy shops written by students who were paid to sit in the lectures for this purpose. Every couple of years, controversy would erupt when a few faculty members would object and demand that notes from their classes be yanked.

Now, in the second decade of the web, these sorts of controversies seem almost quaint, especially when most undergrads carry camera phones and routinely trade digital media. But the fundamental underlying concerns are arguably more relevant today.

What Real Genius played for comic effect is now much more real in this age of distance courses, online lectures, and blended learning. Increasingly, video lectures and podcasts are supplementing or standing in for traditional contact hours. When these materials are placed online, faculty and administrators have to make the decision of whether or not to effectively allow the students to bring their own recorders to the party.

As an educational media technologist, I’m often a little amused at how paranoid some faculty members get about the prospect of their online syllabi and course materials being copied and shared without their permission. My amusement comes from two sources. First, as the college copy shops demonstrated, anything a professor hands out in class is only safe from duplication as long as students can’t find a photocopier. Second, I have to wonder how much of a market some professor’s lecture on Victorian literature or thermodynamics is going to find on LimeWire. And even if it were to become a minor hit, how would that hurt one’s academic career?

I don’t mean to trivialize concerns over intellectual property. Indeed, there are times when securing course materials is very important, such as when students are working with unpublished research data, and there are also privacy concerns, as in cases when students in healthcare fields are called upon to assess cases of real patients. Yet, I think these situations are the exception rather than the rule.

On the openness side of the spectrum, we now see organizations such as the Open Courseware Consortium (www.ocwconsortium.org), where major universities such as The Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Law School, and the University of Notre Dame are joining forces to share online course materials, from course notes to lecture videos. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the leaders in this area, with more than 1,800 courses available for free online.

Without a doubt, placing all of this courseware online is not without risk. A bigger concern than students getting an MIT education for free is that overworked teachers, cash-strapped schools, or fly-by-night diploma mills will borrow liberally from these ready-made courses rather than developing their own.

Still, I think such concerns are overestimated. I tend to fall on the side of greater openness and don’t cotton to the notion that any copying without express permission is tantamount to theft. Scholarship is fundamentally built on sharing. Cheaters and plagiarists are far more likely to be undone when the sources they steal from are a Google search away.

As educational media professionals, it’s our job to understand the intellectual property concerns of educators and help them find a solution somewhere in the spectrum between strict protection and openness. I often find that practical concerns—such as letting students use media on mobile devices or not forcing them to use one particular browser or media player—overrides the impulse to lock things down. No matter how good the recorder, no copy can replace a truly great teacher.

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