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Information literacies for online learning - Sharing wisdom: ye shall know them by their fruits

Alistair Knock, April 2008

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Narrator: The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

"Everyone has the right to education. Higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations." [1]

Education shares knowledge; education breeds creativity. But according to the Global Campaign for Education, 72 million children and 774 million adults do not have access to education. In the UK, 1 in 6 adults have a literacy level less than that expected of an 11 year old. 47% of UK adults have a numeracy ability less than that expected of an 11 year old. [2] [3]

The CIA World Factbook says that over 18% of the world's over-15 population cannot read or write, and that "over two-thirds of the world's 785 million illiterate adults are found in only eight countries". [4]

This is not because we do not have the will to educate, or that learners do not wish to learn: it is because there are obstacles along the way that disrupt the flow of knowledge. Limited resource and limited access are among the reasons given for low levels of education in developing countries. But perhaps there is a separate issue which restricts the availability of education: that we do not want to share.

What is copyright:

Anonymous Chicago Citizen: Uh I would say that copyright is mainly so people don't try and take other people's ideas

Cory Doctorow, Electronic Frontier Foundation: And that has had terrible consequences. we've seen mathematicians threatended with prison time for disclosing the wrong mathematics. We've seen researchers jailed, many of you are familir with Dmitry Sklyarov, what you may not know is that in the wake of the arrest of this researcher in Las Vegas for describing the wrong mathematics, the Russian equivalent of the State Department issued a warning to researchers telling them to stay away from America, because if you go to America and describe the wrong mathematics they'll put you in jail.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia: Authors achieve reward for their talent at arranging, assembling, rephrasing, repositioning, and recombining ideas and expressions

Anonymous Chicago Citizen: Claiming it is theirs and using it to make money (the word "money" repeated several times)

What is Creative Commons:

Male voice: Creativity always builds on the past

Female voice: When you share your creativity, you're enabling people anywhere to use it, learn from it and be inspired by it. Take the teacher, who shapes young minds with work and wisdom from around the globe.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: So much of what we value is a function of the assembly or reassembly of previously exposed ideas

Lawrence Lessig, Chairman, Creative Commons: Creative Commons was born to set culture free, and so our idea was to make it simple for creators and authors to mark their creative work with the freedoms that they intended their creative work to carry

Narrator: So, traditional copyright is based around the idea that all rights are reserved. As the creator of a work, you are automatically granted copyright on it, and have control over it. If somebody else wants to use it for another purpose, then they'll usually have to ask your permission first.

Creative Commons is not the opposite of copyright. It's not predominantly about works being in the public domain and being available to everyone. Instead, Creative Commons extends copyright - instead of saying 'all rights reserved', it says 'some rights reserved', and allows you to specify what conditions you offer your creation under. The main conditions you can apply are:

What about education?

Siva Vaidhyanathan: This is important, this is why copright law explicitly does not regulate ideas, it regulates expressions. We should be free to redeploy ideas for the sake of commentary or criticism for instance, without having to ask permission. This is what makes democratic deliberation possible.

Cory Doctorow: And you can hold your college admin's feet to the fire, because this is an area where coll admin's are torn. On the one hand they are in the business of promoting and promulgating knowledge, and on the other they find themselves on the receiving end of notices telling them that they should be spying on all their student's communications, that they should be shutting down their student's abilities to share information with the public. We just heard at a conference in DC that Penn State University is now foribigging, on pain of expulsion, any student from running any server. The computer science faculty are saying,'well what are you talking about? Promulgating ideas is the role of the university'. Among the projects that began as things hosted on student computers on university servers are Google and Yahoo. This is how technology happens; this how learning happens; this is how knowledge dissemination happens, and you can hold your administration's feet to the fire over this.

Education institutions have always been granted a relaxed view of copyright. Educators frequently breach copyright either consciously or not, because it is generally accepted that it's OK to do so in order to disseminate knowledge and enhance society. Often this is illegal, but it does not necessarily follow that it's unethical. In our increasingly ligitious society, however, lecturers appear to be becoming very nervous. They worry about whether the lectures will end up on YouTube and whether that will adversely affect their standing in the eyes of colleagues. They worry about whether using that really helpful cartoon is an infringement that might one day have repercussions, because someone innocently leaked the PowerPoint file. So Creative Commons, with its clearly defined rights and freedoms, is the ideal solution, right?

Not necessarily. Korn and Oppenheim explore some concerns about such licensing in their 2006 paper, 'Creative Commons Licences in Higher and Further Education: Do We Care?'. They note issues including [5]:

Maureen O'Sullivan, of National University of Ireland, Galway, notes that 'The encouragement of the use of licences presupposes the acceptance of Western�style copyright, an export of dubious value, considering the many extant problems in its places of origin and adoption.' That is to say, Creative Commons only needs to exist because copyright exists before it. [6]

Korn and Oppenheim note that 'Creative Commons licences do not specifically cater for educational purposes,' and conclude that, 'It might be advisable instead for institutions to explore the use of Creative Archive licences, which are a set of more restrictive licences, based upon the same premise as Creative Commons but with limits upon the use of content for educational and non-commercial purposes and restrictions relating to the territories in which they may be used.'

This response aligns with the nervousness about copyright mentioned earlier. Higher education institutions want to have control, and will often re-invent the wheel to ensure that things are done in the way they want them to be done. Unfortunately this simply creates confusion for the rest of society - the beauty of Creative Commons is its increasingly recognisability, and adding more and more licenses or licensing authorities will diminish the powerful concepts at their core. Already there is misinterpretation of the fundamental concepts of 'free' and 'open, mainly concerning restrictions on derivatives. As MacCallum notes on the Public Library of Science's Biology blog, some websites and journals which claim to be open do not allow the creation of derivative works. Essentially, the sharing of wisdom is OK so long as you don't then improve on it. In comparing open access -which allows free availability and derivative works - to free access - which allows free availability but no derivation - MacCallum quotes a colleague as saying 'free access is like giving a child a Lego car and telling her that she can look at it, perhaps touch it, but certainly not take it apart and make an airplane from it. The full potential of the work cannot be realized.' [7]

Cory Doctorow: you can [inaudible] into your privacy. If you find out that your university administration is or is contemplating the purchase of software like Packeteer where all the communications on your network are opened and examined for infringing communications, you can tell them this is against the spirit of academic inquiry, and if they're honourable to their trade, and I have no reason to believe that they're not, they'll believe you.

There is also confusion as to what happens when you share information. Marilyn McMillan, Associate Provost at New York University, said:

"In higher education, it is considered a grave act to take another's work without permission or attribution. At NYU, which also has large and renowned programs in the arts, this respect extends to the creation of new art.

Few in this community would uphold shoplifting CDs from a record store. And few would be content to see their own work�a paper, for instance, or a journal article, or a term project in a course�taken by someone else and used without permission.

Yet, in reality, that is what you do when you download copyrighted files illegally. ..."

But as points out, this is not what happens when you download copyrighted files [8]. Take this example: if you download a podcast of Professor Pilsig's lecture and then upload it to another website, it's still Professor Pilsig's voice, and he may even have introduced himself at the beginning. If he didn't, maybe he should've done, as it ensures attribution. This is entirely different to re-recording the lecture with your own voice, and claiming attribution for yourself. This is simply sharing knowledge - a fundamental human right. Okay, it might be better if you had asked permission to share the lecture, but even better than that would be for the Professor and his institution to have decided beforehand that they don't mind that their knowledge and wisdom is shared.

This is exactly what has happened in some forward thinking institutions.

Male voice: Educators like MIT and Rice University who made their courseware available online for free to the world

Narrator: Hang on, what was that?

Male voice: For free to the world

Narrator: According to Caswell, Henson, Jensen and Wiley, over 2,500 open access courses are currently freely available from over 200 higher education institutions around the world. Now. And these are pretty much the same courses as fee-paying students on-campus attend. OK, there are some things you get in a theatre that you don't get online, but essentially you can have direct access to genius simply by choosing a username and getting stuck in. The university administrators may be screaming 'but why aren't we charging them!', but the real believers want this. For they believe in shared education, and not a privileged one. Once the course has been created, it's cheap to run. So why limit it to 30 students? Why not have 30,000 students?

This is already here. MIT decided in 2001 that they would make all of their courses freely available on the internet over 10 years. This seems crazy. But they have an OpenCourseWare concept, which is similar to open-source software, and they are determined to make it work. Much like Linux has the capacity to allow people to use computers without the cost associated with operating systems, OpenCourseWare has the capacity to allow people to achieve their true potential without the costs associated with a physical campus. People who want to learn will learn.

MIT now have 1,800 courses online. You can download course notes, get podcasts of lectures, and engage with the community.

Rice University have Connexions - - which encourages people to contribute content as well as learn from it. Richard Baranuik says:

'What about ripping, copying, reusing? A team a volunteers at Texas El Paso, graduate students, translating this engineering supertextbook of ideas and within about a week having this be some of our most popular materials in widespread use all over Latin America and in particular in Mexico, because of the open extensible nature of this'

So not only are students going to university, they are creating new universities, by dispersing knowledge into different languages as they learn.

In the UK, the Open University has 5,400 learning hours of content in its OpenLearn initiative. The OU is already a pioneer in distance learning and now recognises that since it has already invested additional resource into providing materials in non-traditional ways, it is simplistic to share this with the rest of the world.


Creative Commons is not necessarily the solution to everything, but it is an important step in creating a middle-ground between absolute copyright and the public domain. There is potential for numerous variations of licencing but this must be constrained to avoid confusion. Ultimately education providers should be prepared to take risks rather than be cautious: the new age of the internet allows near-limitless potential for the original aims of educators, which is not to profit from learners, but to invest in them.



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