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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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October262007

Overcoming Media Illiteracy among Media Literacy Educators

Now I know I have a habit of examining a lot of research reports in this blog. Yeah, I realize I overdo it sometimes. Today, though, please bear with me, as there’s a new report that examines what I believe to be a major crisis in our classrooms: that educators who are trying to improve students’ media literacy are being hampered by their own illiteracy when it comes to copyright and fair use. If you’ve ever wanted your students to dissect media content or produce mashups, this report is a must-read.

The Center for Social Media at American University has just released The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy. The report was put together in conjunction with Temple University’s Media Education Lab and American University Washington College of Law’s Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property. Over the course of this year, they jointly conducted interviews with 63 educators, educational media producers, and organization leaders in media literacy. From these interviews, the authors have concluded that many educators lack a key media literacy skill - the ability to articulate their rights to use unlicensed works in the course of their media literacy teachings.

“The fundamental goals of media literacy education—to cultivate critical thinking about media and its role in culture and society and to strengthen creative communication skills—are compromised by unnecessary copyright restrictions and lack of understanding about copyright law,” the authors write. “[T]eachers face conflicting information about their rights, and their students’ rights, to quote copyrighted material. They also confront complex, restrictive copyright policies in their own institutions. As a result, teachers use less effective teaching techniques, teach and transmit erroneous copyright information, fail to share innovative instructional approaches, and do not take advantage of new digital platforms.”

For example, they cite this hypothetical situation based on the interviews they conducted with educators. A social studies teacher has his students create mashups involving music and political imagery as a way of creating critiques of current affairs. But no one in the school sees the mashups outside of the classroom, because he’s afraid of the legal ramifications of showing them on the school’s closed circuit TV system (let alone putting them online). In another example, a teacher wants her students to examine the techniques used by advertisers to manipulate viewers. She’s worried that if her students dis-assemble and mashup real ads, she could get sued, so she spent the summer making fake ads for her students. They weren’t very good or persuasive, but at least she didn’t violate her school’s copyright policies.

“We should have access to our culture and be able to talk about it and comment on the world around us,” said media educator and video artist Diane Nerwen. Another teacher added, “By overprotecting owners, we run the risk of stifling the creative flow of cultural information.”

” Today, courts’ analyses of fair use issues tend to center on one question: Whether the use in question is ‘transformative,’ in the sense that it adds value to the copyrighted material and employs it for a purpose different from that for which it originally was intended. Transformativeness can involve modifying material or putting material in a new context, or both.”

Over time, though, educators have mislearned the meaning of copyright and fair use. In some cases, it’s because educational institutions have embraced overly conservative interpretations of what constitutes fair use, in order to decrease the possibility of litigation. For example, the report notes that some schools require teachers to justify any use of video in the classroom, “often in an elaborate formal process” that serves as a chilling effect. In another example, the reference a school technology director that makes teachers sign a waiver before they use any type of video that states they are solely liable for their actions and that the school will not be held responsible if they get sued.

In other cases, administrators insist that teachers get formal permission from copyright owners, even when it is not required, and the copyright owners subject them to expensive fees or ridiculous rules. One educator noted how she contacted Newsweek to gain permission for her students to use photographs taken during wartime in her lesson plans. “In addition to paying a hefty fee for each cover, they told us we needed to get permission from both the photographer and the subject of the photo—and we thought, ‘We need to get permission from Ho Chi Minh and Osama bin Laden?’” In her case, though, she was lucky, as she was teaching at a college that was willing to back her fair use claims, allowing her to proceed with the course.

Some educators, meanwhile, take interpretations of fair use to an opposite extreme, believing that any educational use constitutes fair use. “With fair use, the sky’s the limit,” one teacher said. Others made statements such as, “People should be able to use anything they want if they don’t make a profit off it.” I’ve seen this manifested when educators republish news articles in full on their blogs or over discussion lists, blissfully unaware they could be opening themselves up to a not-so-friendly contact from the copyright holder’s lawyers.

The key point of fair use - that the use is transformative in nature - often gets lost in the mix. But some educators surveyed recognized this point. As Quoting one educator, the report states, “The most acceptable uses are the ones in which … two factors intersect: ‘highly altered and short in duration are more acceptable than not at all altered and long in duration.’” But educators surveyed by the authors generally missed this point. “[M]ost participants in this research used copyrighted materials without fully understanding or accepting the potential of fair use to support their work.”

What can be done to improve the situation? The authors make two recommendations. The first one is educating ourselves on what’s fair use and what’s not. “The media literacy education community needs to educate itself further about the clear and unambiguous use rights that its members already enjoy under copyright law,” they write.

Secondly, they note the “urgent need to develop and disseminate a code of practice for the fair use of copyrighted materials by media literacy educators, based on collective discussions of the ways in which educators actually do and reasonably could use such materials, consistent with the law.” Professional educational associations must collaborate to develop best practices that reflect the realities of copyright and fair use, rather than leaning back on a more restrictive interpretation that’s intended to reduce perceived liability, even when educators might be on strong legal ground. If educators can develop these codes of practice and engage in them, the easier it will be for teachers and students to claim fair use and fight against overly aggressive copyright claims. The authors note how documentary makers have gone through a similar process and are already reaping the benefits, giving filmmakers greater ability to claim fair use.

We live in a world where every kid with Internet access has the ability to share and mashup content - something that’s not always done responsibly. Educators can play a powerful role in improving their media literacy skills by employing curricula in which students edit and remix content to understand the arts of persuasion and criticism. But this can be next to impossible when we take an overly narrow view of fair use. As the report concludes, it’s high time for media literacy education to move beyond outworn “guidelines” and dubious “rules of thumb.” -andy

Filed under : Media Literacy, Policy, Research, Video, Youth Media

Responses

Copyright is an act to safeguard ones body of work from any distortion. I believe it is a right of any individual who produces something original and breakthrough. Yes it is true that to re-produce the original work one requires permission from the copywriters or the producer. To seek the permission, one ends up paying excessively. The vast world of World Wide Web has “n” no. of articles some paid and lot of them free. One has to understand that if they want their work to be praised they cannot cut, copy and paste. They need to draw a line, which clearly spells out do’s and don’ts. One needs to have a policy and framework laid out which enables the students of media to come up with the work that is neatly articulated. Media is a mirror of the society. These young kids can only uplift the society when they can own up for their work. This is possible only when they have been given the flexibility to produce within the framework. This also will help them exemplify their work as they will have lot of resource from which they can refer too. Also this will discipline the industry and induce character in them.

In present context, communication is the key. Speaking, listening, and media literacy are three of the elements of communication It has been seen that a good speaker has always been able to motivate and move the crowd. One reason being his ability to connect with the audience. The process of speaking doesn’t end with the person being a good orator but it includes host of activities like selecting a topic, gathering information, organizing the ideas, taking into account the characteristics of the listeners, and planning all aspects of the presentation. Listening is an art in itself. A good listener is someone who is able to adapt to his listeners, lend them his ears and patiently understand what they want to say or present. Again there are variations in the types of listener, some are aggressive, some are reactive, some are adaptive and some are patient. A good communicator is someone who is able to categorize himself as what type of listener he is and then map common characteristics of his audience and himself. This will help him discover his strengths and weakness visa-vis his audience. The third important element of communication is media literacy. Being a critical and reflective consumer of communication requires an understanding of how words, images, graphics, and sounds work together in ways that are both subtle and profound.

Communication competency is indispensable for successful participation in the world of work. The ability to communicate effectively will often determine a person’s perceived over-all competency and level of success. The communication skills ranked as most important to job effectiveness include listening, persuading, advising, instructing, and small group problem solving.

In the world of convergence, wherein the media vehicles are proliferating day by day and the boundaries are shrinking, the advocators need to learn to understand how communication changes when moving from one medium to another medium. The incorporation of media literacy as a subject on communication will help an individual to become more aware as consumers of ideas, products and services. This will further help an individual to resort to cultural differences, make him adaptable and sensitive to the environment.

Hey all,
I was interviewed for this study. The process of talking to the researchers has made me much more “literate” in this area. It’s still very complicated stuff that I wouldn’t hang my head as a teacher for not knowing the finer points of. Until the release of this study I will proceed in the classroom with my current understanding of fair use. I wrote about my experiences related to this study, and gave an example of what I think is a transformative use of copyrighted music in student video productions on my blog: What’s Fair?, How TMS approaches Fair Use.

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