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The Teacher's Outrageous Claim of Intellectual Property

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The Teacher's Outrageous Claim of Intellectual Property

A Response to Deflem and Others
v0.91 (October 11, 2000)

by David Wiley, Ph. D.

The Setting

Some teachers are getting pretty vocal about what they feel is their claim to so-called "Intellectual Property." (I use the term IP not to imply my consent to its existence, simply because this is the term currently being used in the larger ongoing discussion.) It would seem that with titles like Full Professor they forget that they're actually teachers. It is true that at the university level we are frequently called upon to contribute to our community in several ways, including research, publication, and community service. However, there is no avoiding that when we are engaged in the act of helping people learn we are "teachers" in the most common-sense meaning of the term. The premise of this paper is that the ideas "teacher" and "intellectual property" are fundamentally incompatible.

Deflem is gaining recognition for his website confusingly entitled "Free Education Now" that argues for restrictions on the distribution of educational materials (which is currently celebrating the passage of a California law "to prohibit the unauthorized posting of class lecture notes!") Deflem and others (c.f. Noble) have argued strongly against the increased distribution of educational resources via the Internet. (Noble has argued against university / corporate partnerships that would facilitate the creation and distribution of so-called "online courses" and Deflem is arguing against the distribution of student lecture notes on the Internet.) Simply put, despite any academic rhetoric that can be provided, restricting access to educational resources, materials, and opportunities is not beneficial to learners.

The Problem

Modern conceptions of learning

Relatively recent advances in learning theory suggest that learning is a social activity; specifically, they suggest that knowledge is socially constructed through a process of negotiation and interaction with others. Not surprisingly, exposure to a diversity of viewpoints makes this learning experience richer than exposure to a single "authoritative" view point (which of course annuls the need for skills teachers normally claim they value, like critical thinking).

By fighting against increasing the number of views and interpretations available for student consideration, Noble, Deflem, and others are throttling effective learning. They are serving as a type of anti-learning catalyst. The fewer opinions, the fewer interpretations, the fewer points of view learners are able to turn to as they construct their own knowledge, the more incomplete and fragile that knowledge will be. Fighting against the distribution of a student's interpretation of a lecture does nothing to promote learning. It only impedes learning. Derailing efforts to make more courses available to more people at a greater convenience (and perhaps lower cost) does nothing to "free" learning. It only hampers learning.

The Ivory Tower

This ignorance of modern notions of learning (assuming it is a simple ignorance and not a deliberate passing over) demonstrates, yet again, an Ivory Tower mentality. The mentality says, "We have terminal degrees. We have been awarded millions of dollars in grant monies. We have been published in the best journals. You don't need the unenlightened interpretation of the uninitiated. It will only confuse your undisciplined mind. We alone possess the Truth. You will follow us. You will worship us." With no background in education, with no formal or informal study of learning or instructional design, these men and women expect learners to equate a teacher's domain knowledge with the ability to teach about the domain, or in other words, learners are expected to believe that a Ph. D. qualifies one to teach others. (Ask 10 randomly selected university students if they believe this to be true.) I appreciate that these men and women are in many instances great researchers, great writers, and rolling in grant money. (In some instances, they are even great teachers.) However, it was my experience as a learner that none of these attributes (academic, research, grant, and publication record) were reliable indicators of a teacher's ability to communicate with me in a way that helped me learn.

If teachers are now granted power to disallow learners from sharing their own interpretation of the material they are studying with others, and to disallow other learners sharing their opinions with them, are learners to be left to learn from only "Enlightened" sources? How Enlightened must the source be? Can a learner share his interpretation with a T. A. when seeking help? What about university approved tutors, who have already taken the class and received an "A" grade? What about a study group? Are learners not to participate in such things, as it would require the disclosure of a teacher's protected intellectual property, such as the date of the War of 1812? Are study groups to be disallowed from meeting virtually in our increasingly networked world? Is the number of group members to be limited? Are intra-university cross-section study groups to be permitted? Inter-university study groups? This is clearly a sorites paradox, and no arbitrary restriction can be rationally justified. Even if one could, it would needs be for a reason other than the facilitation of learning. And if we are not trying to facilitate learning, why are we teaching at a university?

The Educational IP Endgame: Reverse Engineering

Finally, I want to point out the logical end of where this IP silliness is headed. When a student is today bound (at least in the state of California, your mileage may vary according to your university's policy) to not redistribute in writing the content of the courses they are paying money to take, what will happen next? Can I post a verbal expression of the course materials on the Internet? If not, how does this differ from a conversation? But written and verbal expressions are of the least concern. Imagine a scenario in which a student enrolls in a university, earns a degree, and then takes a job directly related to his degree. (Use your imagination.) One day on the job, Johnny thinks, "I know how to do this. I learned this in class." Whoops! Will Johnny use course content for the commercial gain of someone other than the owner of that bit of Intellectual Property that has been "transfered" to Johnny (never mind that he paid for it)? More dangerously, would it not be possible for someone to observe Johnny at work (no written or verbal expression here) and reverse engineer his superior, college-educated performance in order to recover the content of his courses? Now Johnny is not only kept from discussing his courses in a written or verbal format, he may well be legally bound to refrain from acting based on the content of his courses, on the grounds that the information may be directly recoverable from his actions. What a blatant violation of Dr. Jones' Intellectual Property Rights!

Give Something Back!

Perhaps the most confusing thing to me, personally, is the take-but-don't-give (translation: selfish) attitude being demonstrated. Where did these professors teaching English 101, Soc 212, and Math 415 discover the principles they are teaching? Did someone not teach them? Whether in school, book, article, or conference presentation, it was my experience that over 90% of the material I was getting in school was available about 1,000 other places. (The percentage was higher for my undergraduate studies.)

Moreover, when academics do discover something novel, what is the first thing they are bound to do? Publish it! They put the idea out in the public domain for anyone who can read or listen to consume and extend. This is generally referred to as the accumulation of knowledge, or more tersely, "scientific progress." Why is it that only terminal degree holders should be allowed to participate in this process? Why should students not be allowed to interpret what they hear and read and share that interpretation with others? The claim that students are somehow violating a Professor's Intellectual Property by simple participation in the scientific and academic tradition reminds me of the apocryphal exchange between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, when Jobs learned that MicroSoft had also created a user interface based on the work at Xerox PARC. In response to Jobs' expression of anger and disbelief, Gates whines back, "What? Are you going to say, 'We stole the idea first?'"

Twice as a graduate student I was asked to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDA) for material I studied as part of a class. In retrospect I can only reinterpret the situation thus: "Spend your tuition money to study with me this semester, help me advance my own thinking, and promise never to use the subject of your study again once the semester is over." Why would I pay to study something I am under legal agreement to never use again? And I thought that studying simply irrelevant stuff like Algebra in middle school was a waste of time!


To me, teaching is synonymous with sharing. For example, I may try to share something I know with you in a way that will facilitate your knowing it too. This is "teaching." If there is a place in the world for stinginess, for holding back, for restricting free and open dialog, for quashing diverse points of view, it is not the university (or any other environment in which learning is to take place). I understand that corporations feel they need to resort to these tactics; with no business training I cannot speak intelligently to whether these practices will "improve their bottom line" or not. However, I can speak with confidence on the effect these practices have on learning. They are antithetical to everything learning represents. Keep IP in the corporate world. To Deflem and others, I say "Free Education Now."

David Wiley holds a Ph. D. in Instructional Psychology and Technology from Brigham Young University, and now serves as Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at Utah State University. David is the founder of OpenContent.

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