Thursday, August 02, 2012

school, teach thyself

There's an educational theme bubbling through the media today. Maybe it's the fact that with the beginning of August, many of us have started scanning back-to-school flyers and counting the weekends remaining before that always exciting, always stressful "first day." I know my own kids have been groaning about the shortness of summer since about June 30th.

Sadly, our educational system is not showing its brightest colours these days - and I say this as the good friend of a number of elementary school teachers and college professors, and the husband of a PhD in Higher Education. Since many of the complaints I hear about all levels of schooling these days come from these friendly sources, let it be known I am not taking a broad swipe at teaching. I feel the pain of my pedagogic comrades when they cringe with embarrassment at some of the stories out there right now.

Let's start close to home. Today, the Globe & Mail published an opinion piece I wrote about a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision and how the educational system is being encouraged to completely misinterpret that decision in a misguided grab at cost-savings. If schools, colleges and universities run down the free culture road based on this SCC decision, Canada will be treated to the sad sight of educational institutions being sued for copyright infringement.

I have two kids in the Toronto District School Board system. It amazes me how few textbooks I see in their schoolbags (a total of zero last year), and how many individual photocopied sheets of lessons and exercises are there instead. There is no question that copying of educational materials is rampant in schools desperate to cut costs, and this trend can be empirically measured, I'm sure. I have served on my kids' parent council. I know how much independent fundraising needs to happen to furnish Toronto's schools with what used to be considered the basics - library books (I've personally donated dozens), musical instruments, sports equipment, instructional tools. 

The principal of my kids' school is, I think, a genius. He has managed to do incredible things for his school within a larger system that appears to be crumbling around him. He has collected excellent teachers, leveraged the energy and excitement of the neighbourhood around the school, and somehow completely renovated and modernized a nearly century-old building. The last thing I want to see happening to his budget is greater tightening; but, more copying and less paying for copyright licences is certainly not an answer. That way lies a legal and financial mess that would pit current partners in education against each other and would, in the end, cost far more than it saves.

Speaking of financial messes, the Globe and Mail also published an article today about widespread fraud and embezzlement in Canadian universities. Focusing initially on high-profile, and high-cost, cases at York University and the University of Waterloo, the article details how little actual financial oversight there can be in these institutions with annual budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. To someone who has been engaged in the struggle for fair copyright compensation for artists within the post-secondary system, is it surprising that one of these cases centres on "a University of Waterloo copy centre supervisor [charged] with fraud totalling $955,000"?  No, it's not all that surprising. The value of copying in post-secondary institutions is staggering.

Finally, there's another type of copying at play elsewhere in education. Plagiarism has long been a problem in schools, colleges and universities, but with the advent of Wikipedia and Google searches, and a seemingly widespread disregard for original thought among a growing sector of the networked society, it looks like tolerance for outright copying and plagiarism is growing even among the educators. How else to explain the educational information guide I wrote about earlier this week, which lifts entire unattributed passages of writing from the blog of a prominent free culture activist. Now, free culture may be all about the "sharing" of knowledge, but even freecult guru Lawrence Lessig draws the line at outright plagiarism. Not so in Canadian educational circles, I guess.

Terrible legal advice, fraud and plagiarism. Not what I'm looking for from the educational system my kids will be in for the next decade (at least). How do we fix this?

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As always, thanks to The Devil's Artisan for their wonderful collection of public domain woodcuts.

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