IT and IP go Troppo

For the last couple of days Jen has been attending a teachers’ conference at CDU. Yesterday I attended a session with her to listen to Dale Spender, aging ‘digital diva’ and former guru of the non-radical feminist movement, spruik about her new hobby horse: information technology in education. I should have known better.

Ms Spender’s ideas can be summarised as follows:

  • Kids don’t need to be taught IT skills because they know them all already and are much more “digitally literate” than their teachers.
  • Kids should just be let loose on IT right across the curriculum, with teachers acting as lovable, bumbling but inevitably technophobic providers of contextual meaning.
  • Kids don’t need to be any more than minimally literate and numerate in the traditional sense (i.e. be able to read or write or add up), because they’re already “digitally literate” and that’s all that counts in Spenderland.
  • Kids don’t need to be taught to actually memorise anything, that’s what the Windows “Save” command is for!

The wonder was not so much that this was the keynote speech at a major education conference, but that only a small minority of the audience of teachers looked even slightly skeptical or disbelieving.

I didn’t bother attending today’s session, where Ms Spender regaled the audience with her ideas on intellectual property laws. But I’m semi-reliably informed that she advocated reducing copyright protection to expire at the death of the author (instead of 50 years after death as in Australia and 70 years in the US), and that copyright protection should not apply to corporations at all (Microsoft is the embodiment of evil).

Apparently Ms Spender cited US IP specialist academic Lawrence Lessig in support of her position. However, unless he’s radically changed his views since the time I wrote this long post a couple of years ago, she’s seriously misrepresenting Lessig’s opinions.

Nevertheless, Spender’s views on copyright protection aren’t as obviously silly as her position on IT in education. I certainly don’t support the extension of copyright term to 70 years, as seems inevitable here following the recent Free Trade Agreement with the US. In fact I’d even like to see the duration of copyright protection reduced somewhat. As I argued in my previous post:

Balancing all these competing rights and interests is a horrendously complex task. A useful starting point, however, is to keep in mind that a property owner prima facie has every right to take all reasonable steps to safeguard her property. In “meatspace” that involves the right to exclude trespassers from your land. In cyberspace, it necessarily involves the right to restrain others from making copies of your work. Otherwise the notion of “property” has no meaning. If you’re a socialist, you’re probably pretty relaxed and comfortable about that. If you’re a libertarian democrat, however, you would do well to remember that property rights and rule of law are core aspects of liberalism without which market capitalism can’t exist. On the other hand, advances in human knowledge occur incrementally, through sharing of ideas and building on the work of others. Intellectual property rights may enhance the growth of knowledge by giving creators a reasonable return on their intellectual work. However, paradoxically, IP rights, whether enforced through law, code, markets or architecture (to adopt Lessig’s classifications) must never be allowed to impede the growth of knowledge through excessive access restrictions.

We need to balance the public interest in a free flow of knowledge against the author’s interest in obtaining a reasonable return on her creation. But Spender’s evident resentment (as an author herself and a director of CAL), at the fact that much of the benefit of legislatively-mandated IP “rent-seeking” is harvested by large corporations instead of by authors themselves, needs to be tempered with realism. Frequently, as in movies, cartoons and TV shows, the copyright work really is a corporate creation rather than the work of any single individual. And even when there is a single author (or small group), the work might not have been produced without the nurturing, sponsorship, editorial and production control, and distribution and marketing clout of the corporation which ends up owning the IP.

Corporate IP holders, like individual authors, can reasonably demand a fair period to earn a return on their investment, otherwise creative effort will inevitably be reduced. Lessig and many others rightly highlight the outrageous “rent-seeking” behaviour of US corporations like Disney and Microsoft in strong-arming governments into unacceptable extensions of the reach of copyrght law. But Spender goes too far in the other direction. Even the suggestion that individual copyright should cease on the death of the author goes too far. A person who expends their productive endeavours on building a real estate empire or business enterprise can hand it on to their children (subject to any capital gains or inheritance taxes). Why shouldn’t a creative artist be able to do the same at least to a limited extent? To prevent this by legislating for copyright cessation on death is to create marketplace distortions that militate against creative endeavour, which hardly seems like a good idea.

Personally, if I had my druthers, I’d like to see the duration of copyright protection reduced to 30 years for corporations and 30 years after death in the case of individuals. That’s roughly equivalent to commercial lifetime/investment amortisation calculations corporations typically make in relation to commercial real estate or infrastructure investments, so it should also provide sufficient incentive for companies to continue investing in IP. Moreover, governments would almost certainly be better advised to provide “front-end” incentives for R & D than encouraging back-end gouging of surplus super-profits.

Mind you, I shouldn’t be too mean to poor old Dale. She has a cheery presentation, very nice purple outfits and spectacular big hair. A speaker like that can’t be all bad, even if she seems mostly to spout amiable nonsense.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Spender’s been saying this kind of stuff for years. Interesting to note she still kits out in purple.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Parish, I’m never telling you anything again. Just because she doesn’t do rational argument, doesn’t mean she doesn’t address principles. Most teachers wouldn’t think too deeply about their teaching practice (look how relatively few were even at the conference at 10.30am on day 1) let alone ponder issues like IT as a basic tool, across the curriculum.
These issues are imponderables that are and have been, best left to ‘someone else’ while teachers get on with the business of the classroom.
The notion, however randomly constructed, that a school is not a school unless it is technologically equipped is self-evident, but there is no such school I know of in Darwin and I daresay, in the Territory. Yes, sure education can take place under trees, but to what end?

Now to the IP. Dale Spender wore a very lovely floral outfit this morning and might I say looked damn fine. She jumped a round again like a flea in a fit and made all kinds of sweeping statements. Once again, in principle she has a point. Tying up ideas in copyright may be the death of creativity of a kind, but I’m with Parish here, in that, I don’t think copyright protection is in the business of killing ideas, and as I pointed out during the session, the market will find a level that will make information exclusive and undemocatic but only to the extent that the market can continue to grow. It is a little naive to think that this medium is or has ever been ‘free’. (My computer is currently being reimaged, – just another one of the many process payments we make to access the online forums) Jumping around I know, but what the hell, I’m a middle aged woman with ideas who has no great love of linear logic.
Very pleased to meet you Ms Spender.

Graham
2022 years ago

I kind of agee that there is a point where IP protection crosses the line between encouraging innovation (by providing an incentive for businesses and individuals to research so they can make a profit on it) and stifling it (when a firm doesn’t want to further develop or even exploit [in the positive sense of the word] some technology that they own the rights in, but are perfectly willing to stop anyone else from doing anything with it either – patent squatting is about as egregious as it gets.) And that happens a lot.

And yeah, Spender managed to reinvent herself as a maven when the internet started breaking out of academia, though not a particularly lucid one. Very good at generalising about IT and pointing out obvious problems, not so good with the subtle ones. (She was light years ahead of Gareth Powell, however.)

But I’d just about put her in the “remember them?” basket. Nice to see she’s still out there spruiking that schtick in that amiable, somewhat kooky fashion.

Graham
2022 years ago

Oh yeah, and playing Counter-Strike does not equal IT skills. If anything, Counter-Strike equals juvenile obesity…

Mark
2022 years ago

Yeah, she’s got good taste in clothes, Rob.

Spender’s credibility in academia is close to zip.

She’s a provocative speaker (though she always says the same thing) so that’s probably why she gets invited to conferences.

Fortunately, her views, as far as I can tell, have little policy impact. In the QUT Faculty of Education, students are given a large amount of training in mastering IT, and in Queensland the government has been pouring money into inservice and updating and skilling older teachers.

So I wouldn’t worry too much about Ms Spender.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Right. I was going to ask, actually, Mark – and Kim if you’re lurking – sparing myself my usual astringency, is Dale still regarded as a philosophe cum feminist icon? I read her ‘Women of Ideas’ and thought ‘errrrr’, and her ‘Squabbling Sisters’ and thought ‘ummmm’.

Perhaps you have already answered my question, however.

No offence, quite honestly. I’m just curious.

Mark
2022 years ago

Dunno, Rob.

I know she wrote a book on language and gender many years ago which had an impact.

Best thing she ever did though was publish a series of now obscure but interesting novels by women in colonial Australia – I particularly recommend the novels of Rosa Praed for bushranging, politics, courtship, Fenian subversion and transplanted decadent aristocrats in 1870s Qld. Very racy and interesting reads!

Mark
2022 years ago

Ken or jen, is she using the title Professor still? When I was on academic board at UQ in 91 as a student rep, there was some criticism of her appointment as adjunct professor – which may have been related to the fact that her partner, Professor Ted Brown, was then Deputy VC.

yobbo
2022 years ago

I agree with her first two points wholeheartedly, but disagree with the second two.

I was a member of the original generation of kids to grow up with PCs, and the difference of knowledge between the students and teachers was marked.

The dumbest kids in class (who could barely read or write, let alone know their 12 times table), were streets ahead of most teachers in adapting to work on a PC.

A few years back (at the insistence of the government) I did some work for a local primary school here, assisting the “Computing Teacher” (actually a regular primary teacher who knew MS office, making her the most qualified of all the school’s 17 teachers) in cannibalising some donated PCs into usable terminals.

I also sat in as a teacher’s aide in computing class helping out the kids with questions and whatever. In general, her knowledge was superior to the year 1, 2 and 3’s, about on a par with the year 4’s and 5’s, and inferior to the year 6’s and 7’s.

Even the “troublemaker” kids would cause mischief by disabling safesearch on Google or downloading Eminem .mp3s and playing them at high volume. Most people over 40 would not know how to do that (obviously though, your average blog reader is not going to fit that generalisation).

The difference must be even greater in high school.

In addition, the amount of educational resources available on the internet is so more substantial – and of a higher quality – than what is available in school libraries and textbooks that you’d be mad *not* to take advantage of it in all aspects of the curriculum.

That said, there’s no substitute for actually being able to read or write, and a calculator or excel is a poor substitute for an understanding of mathematics.

Mindy
Mindy
2022 years ago

I found in my brief stint as a teacher that it is more important that the kids have the tools to find the information rather than having learnt it by rote. That said, in order to learn to use the tools to find the information they need to know the basics. There is no point being able to google up anything if you then can’t read it.

Ms Spender has taken a good idea to extremes I think. I know from my albeit brief experience that kids left to their own devices on computers very quickly decide to see what porn sites they can access. Just because it’s there.

More teachers familiar with IT would be a good idea, but what I found was that many resisted the idea of bringing computers into mainstream classrooms because the kids did know so much more about them and it’s relatively easy to minimise or hide windows where you aren’t supposed to be and give the impression that you’re doing the work you were set.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mindy

I don’t think Spender is suggesting that children just be “left to their own devices” on computers in the classroom, just that teachers have no hope of competing with their students’ intuitive/native IT skills. She sees teachers exercising a guiding and mentoring role, and harnessing the use of IT to educational goals (e.g. working collaboratively on structured projects). I don’t quibble with that aspect of her presentation.

But my own extensive experience with the “digital literacy” of recent high school graduates, in running Australia’s first online law degree and helping new students deal with the technology, tells me that a high proportion of them are NOT as “digitally literate” as Yobbo suggests (and Spender conclusively assumes). Of course the techie nerds are, but that doesn’t include most students. Most can no doubt download MP3s, and play around with assorted settings on a PC in a way that may baffle the average school teacher, but that has very little to do with any useful form of “digital literacy”.

Very few of them have the faintest idea about how to use search engines and other tools to find and evaluate information on the Internet (except porn and music). And unless they’ve taken an appropriate IT-related subject at high school, they usually DON’T know how to drive Excel, Powerpoint or even use the more esoteric features of MS Word, let alone web authoring or video editing software. All these (arguably basic) skills can be taught, and school teachers can be taught to teach them.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

Spender seems AFAIK simply to be styling herself “Dr” these days. I didn’t hear her referred to as “Professor”, although I was only there for a single session.

Mark
2022 years ago

Ken, thanks. I think most of those adjunct appointments last only for 3 years (except for Prof. Fels who’s now back to being a real Prof. after some contestation over his right to use the title).

Stephen
Stephen
2022 years ago

Mindy said that “kids left to their own devices on computers very quickly decide to see what porn sites they can access”. Well, if you provide kids with a standard Windows environment without locking down Internet access, that’s exactly what will happen.

On the other hand, if you provide kids with a well-designed sandbox environment where they can only access pre-defined lessons online, e-mail internally and post on bulletin boards, the problems will be far fewer.

General Internet (Google) access should only be allowed for those classes where it is required.

All students should know that everything they do is subject to logging and review, and that any misbehavior will be dealt with severely.

Unfortunately, network administration at schools is almost always horrendously under-staffed, under-funded and/or under-qualified (pick any combination).

However, it seems to me that State or Federal governments could, if they chose, create such an environment and make the software available to schools. I’m not holding my breath for this to happen, though.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

‘Unfortunately, network administration at schools is almost always horrendously under-staffed, under-funded and/or under-qualified (pick any combination).’

Yes and this is one of Spender’s points. This under resourcing of technology tools in schools (ha) is down to the inability of the generation with hands on purse strings to imagine the future. We are a conservative lot, us humans and have been slow to resource schools so that the practices there segue into the forefront of digital communications and information practice.,

I just want 5 apple macs with firewire connections so I can use IMOVIE and one PC with lots of memory for Adobe Premiere Pro AT SCHOOL!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

“On the other hand, if you provide kids with a well-designed sandbox environment where they can only access pre-defined lessons online, e-mail internally and post on bulletin boards, the problems will be far fewer.”

But so too will the learning experience be correspondingly reduced. It might well be appropriate in primary schools for the extent of internet access to be tightly regulated, but certainly not in high schools. One of the points that Spender made with which I completely agree, is that teenage kids will almost certainly have open access to the internet at home, seldom with any Netnanny-type software restrictions, which are easily bypassed or disabled anyway.

We don’t need to get paranoid about kids accessing porn at school. As you say, network administrators (if schools had competent ones) can log usage and offending students can be disciplined. Moreover, if computers are being used in an appropriate collaborative, supervised way, the classroom teacher will usually fairly quickly detect students who are goofing off and accessing porn instead of tackling the allocated project. And if the occasional kid manages to sneak a look at some naked flesh, so what? Parents who fondly imagine their kids don’t do this anyway need to get a grip on reality. As long as schools are taking reasonable measures to minimise such behaviour, they are discharging their duty of care and can’t reasonably be slated (although that probably won’t stop fundies and opportunist politicians from making a fuss if they get half a chance – we should simply ignore them).

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
2022 years ago

I think Ken has pretty accurately captured the essence of Spender.

One of the characteristics of the information age is that there’s a lot to learn, which I term a steep information gradient. That means there will always be people at points along that gradient, and some of them falsely presume their current state of knowledge is complete. Spender and many Australian so-called experts fall into this category.

Exageration of the computer expertise of children is a characteristic of those who are themselves only marginally capable.

It is foolish to claim there’s nothing to learn or be taught in information skills. There are lots of skills, and schools and teachers are slowly understanding this better. I have become quite impressed at the rapid improvements over the past two years. There is still further to go, but schools will get there.

Spender’s views on IP are just the superficial trendiness of the Australian academic. If she was in touch she would realise the world has moved on.

yobbo
2022 years ago

“Most can no doubt download MP3s, and play around with assorted settings on a PC in a way that may baffle the average school teacher, but that has very little to do with any useful form of “digital literacy”.”

I beg to differ. That’s the very essence of “digital literacy”. It’s basically about having the confidence to try things out, the lack of which is responsible for the great majority of adult computer illiteracy. I’ve taught adults to use PCs, and they are often deathly afraid of clicking the wrong button and blowing the PC up.

Not being able to use a specific software package like Excel or Powerpoint doesn’t make you any more “digitally illiterate” than having not read Moby Dick makes you illiterate. Learning a specific package is very easy – you just have to want to.

Most kids in a law course probably wouldn’t know Excel – what use would they have had for it before? A lot of them would know Adobe Photoshop though (which is very popular among high school pirates), which is an infinitely more complex and involved program than any of the MS Office suite.

Robert
2022 years ago

I think Yobbo’s right. Well-designed software should be relatively intuitive to anyone who has basic computer skills and a degree of confidence in their ability. It’s far more important to understand the basics of the operating system UI than it is to know the ins and outs of a specific package, and that will be picked up pretty quickly by a kid who mucks around on the internet for a while.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Yobbo

You make a good point about people who grow up with computers feeling much more confident to try things out and simply click on things to work out how to do them, than those who don’t feel so comfortable and are afraid of “blowing the PC up”. But, with respect, you’re still talking about an elite group of really “digitally literate” kids. In my experience (and it’s pretty extensive, because I work with hundreds of students from all over Australia), the great majority simply don’t have the level of relaxed confidence and familiarity that you assume with using computers.

The fact that you think a lot of kids would be familiar with Adobe Photoshop rather confirms that you’ve been mixing with a digitally privileged elite and assuming they’re representative of the majority. I can tell you for sure they’re not.

Finally, Microsoft Office suite (or competitor packages) might be mere programs, but working knowledge of a spreadsheet program, presentation software like Powerpoint and some sort of WYSIWIG web authoring package is important to success in a wide range of occupations these days, including law. You can get away without it, but only at the cost of a significant practical handicap that some employment competitors won’t be saddled with. On the other hand, if I was an employer with a choice between a graduate with a strong academic degree and good stable work record, and someone with a significantly more mediocre degree and stronger IT skills, I’d still tend to choose the former. You can pick up the IT skills as needed, whereas a lack of black letter law knowledge and critical/analytical skills is a much more central deficiency.

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
2022 years ago

The knowledge yobbo is talking about can be systematised into classroom courses and can be taught. There’s nothing magical about it. I am seeing this occurring now in schools I have contact with.

It’s a false dichotomy to treat knowledge of office programs as being different from familiarity with platforms and internet access. All are part of modern computer skills. All have become reasonably stable and can be systematised and taught. Anyone who says otherwise is betraying their own lack of analytical skills.

Nic White
2022 years ago

Ive got here a bit late, but I did a university assignment on IT in schools about a year ago that some readers may find interesting and pertinent to the discussion.

http://white.no-ip.net/misc/edureport.doc

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

“It’s a false dichotomy to treat knowledge of office programs as being different from familiarity with platforms and internet access. All are part of modern computer skills.”

Tony, I think Rob put it better than I did. Knowing the ins and outs of the UI and a basic understanding of how computers work is the basic framework. Once you know that, any package can be learned simply by trial/error and reading the help file without any outside assistance.

It helps also if you know something about the skill being used in the package. E.G. A maths dunce is going to struggle with Excel no matter how well he knows windows, and the artisticly-challenged will struggle with photoshop or director.

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
2022 years ago

And why do you think knowledge of the “ins and outs of the UI” and “basic understanding of how computers work” can’t be taught in classes?

meika
2022 years ago

I’ve nearly finished my novel, less than a fifth to go or so, and I have an ethical problem for you all regarding copyright and my time on the dole, should i sell it, get off the dole, or give it away because I have been on the dole so long (twenty years now)

Leave comments at my blog.

Direct link to entry is
http://dolebludger.blogspot.com/2005/04/novel-update-for-april-and-ethics-215.html

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Yobbo has raised a very interesting point. Computers are gateways to forms of knowledge and learning styles. I will never get Excel properly, while word based programs have enabled me to streak away and do stuff.

Which is why the kind of learning that Tony is talking about is so crucial. If I was at school now, I would need the “moronpak” for Excel, by which really innumerate people can learn to use it because even the most basic understanding is a powerful tool. And in a creative writing class, I would need to understand not just Word but publishing programs as well.

meika
2022 years ago

excel, bad example, avoid it whereever you can