In the article, Do Students Have Copyright to their Own Notes, Erica Perez summarizes the arguments pro and con for students owning their class notes. The specific concern was that students were uploading the notes onto websites and, in some cases, purporting to sell them.
Students’ notes are copyrighted by the students and students should be able to do anything they want with them, including sell them (although California law makes that illegal) or post them on a website. After all, when students take notes, they’re adding their interpretations of what their instructors present in classes. This is true whether the students copy from a faculty-member provided outline or whether students create and outline the notes solely from lectures or other presentations. And notes memorialize what students heard, so they can use them to study, to study with others in the class and to help students who did not attend class.
So, why the fuss? Faculty believe that the notes students take during class are based on instructors’ intellectual property. That intellectual property is the faculty members’ in-class presentation of research (sometimes) or other information that the faculty members have developed over time and often at great effort and expense. But let’s examine that point more closely. Most faculty did not create this knowledge independently–they created it by “standing on the shoulders of giants” in their fields and building on those giants’ research and knowledge. Although the instructors present their “take” on the knowledge and the faculty’s presentation is thus copyrightable/copyrighted and valuable, that doesn’t mean that the students cannot copyright their “take” on the information. Each individual’s interpretation of the information has value-and copyright law permits that value to be protected.
This raises a larger issue, though, the issue of “knowledge” in general and the copyright law in particular. In education, we remain wedded to the notion that knowledge resides solely within the purview of the instructor. Think about it, though. According to Google, there are nearly 130 million books (and it plans to digitize all of them). As of August 2010, Google has digitized approximately 12 million. That does not include other works, such as peer-reviewed articles available in paper and electronic format. It’s impossible for any one faculty member to have mastery over any significant part of that. In fact, that’s the reason that teaching information and digital literacy is so important-it’s not only having some knowledge that’s important, it’s equally important to be able to find and critically evaluation the information that’s available everywhere.
Most of us in higher education teach behind closed doors. We enter the classroom and the teaching and learning that occurs behind that door is a secret between the teacher and the students in that course. When students finish that course, they are to emerge with greater knowledge than when they entered. And I hope that’s true. Appropriate assessment can help faculty determine whether that has occurred.
Yet access to information has changed and so, too, must faculty’s role. The recitation and Socratic method of questioning so popular during Socrates’ time was based on the idea that Socrates had “read all the books” and as he presented his oratory he questioned his students to ensure that they were “getting it,” partly because the students hadn’t “read all the books.” Now, students have access to the books and access to a wide variety of digital resources-credible and non-credible. As technology continues to improve, students will be able to use their cell phones to access far more resources than the faculty. Faculty’s role must change to one of assisting students evaluate and manage that information, in addition to passing on the key concepts of a discipline. This evolution involves disruptive, transformational change in the way faculty promote and assess learning.
And copyright law has its own problems in that it, as Lessig would say, stifles creativity. I agree. If we continue to restrict access to information, that will, of necessity encourage underground versions of information or stifle creative versions of information.
So, should students own the copyright to their notes? Absolutely! Does that have an impact on education? Yes, as long as we continue to teach from behind closed doors. Should it have that significant an impact? Absolutely not! Let’s move past this discussion to work on institutional change in the way we teach.