This was my Guardian Column for early 2006
Some of the big questions that ICT pose for us in the 21st century revolve around "who owns what?", and "what is original?". It is clear that the whole issue of ownership and copyright is set to hurt education badly worldwide if we don't get our principles clear. 21st century technology is all about helping people to help each other, as I have observed before. Innately, we take a delight in helping. My daughter, currently immersed in her PGCE practice, phoned me delightedly to say that her lesson plan had been adopted by another teacher, who badged it as her own. "I must be on the right track, mustn't I?" she said, delightedly. In education we have always shared and exchanged - from Banda sheets to effective practice. In the 80s in ICT we saw really substantial numbers of teachers swapping ULPs (Useful Little Programmes) that they had developed themselves. Individual celebrity might have been on offer, but funding certainly wasn't.
I frequent Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London and typically pop along to see exceptional performers create something special, late into the night. If you ask me about it I'll usually say "you should have been there". The musicians are famous, and well paid, because of their ability to be ingenious and to delight their audience, differently, with each performance. In the last century the wish to ossify every performance or activity by wrapping it in a complex web of patents and copyrights reached a kind of mania. Recently, this was wonderfully pastiched by a group who claimed to have registered several million combinations of telephone number keypad tones, as "their" unique tunes. Thus, when you phoned a friend, you were breaking copyright by playing their tune!. It is ridiculous, but shows how foolish the whole thing had become. ICT is facing this problem in myriad ways. A radio programme used to be something that was owned, then performed on the air a finite number of times. But with web streaming, podcasting, MP3 storage on phones, Sky+ and more, the place and time when you listen will vary from individual to individual. As a broadcast passes from hardware to hardware the concept of "original" or "authorised" starts to wobble badly. A question that dropped into a forum I belong to showed how confused everyone is by ICT's ability to communicate and replicate: "If," it asked, "on a face-to-face course CLA clearance has been obtained for a reader-pack and the articles cleared for photocopying, can they also be scanned, pdf-ed and uploaded into a password protected VLE? Â Or are you in breach of copyright?". Who knows?!
Fortunately movements like the Creative Commons group are busy implementing good solutions to the impact of ICT on "ownership" and "rights". The BBC's Creative Archive project looks to be able, finally, to wrest that wonderful archive of broadcast material away from the lawyers and make it available for the children and families who paid for it in the first place. Others, like the UK's Teachers' TV, have started with a completely refreshing view that anything they broadcast will be freely available from their website, to stream or save, and can be used in schools, homes, on phones even, as suits the user.
Technology copyright rules, depressingly, are hopelessly biased in favour of developed economies. In the West I can protect my invention of an clever algorithm, but the Arab nation that invented the numbering system it depends on get nothing. So it is easy to see why one nation's piracy is another nation's retaliation against cultural imperialism. ICT in schools progresses by each of us helping, rather than charging, each other. The children understand this perfectly. Type "free essays online" into Google if you doubt it (and you'll get a lot more hits than if you type "buy essay online"). In the end, probably rightly, all we will be able to protect is our individual ability to be ingenious, to solve problems and to perform delightfully.
If in doing so we come to value, once again, the individual contribution of great teachers and exceptional students, and we develop skills to help us choose between them, it doesn't sound to bad, does it?
© Stephen Heppell 2006
Child led learning
8 months ago