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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Who Owns Student Work Product?
February 1, 2011 - 8:15am

The CHE has a story today with the lead headline:

iPhone App Raises Questions About Who Owns Student Inventions

I await complete comment until the opportunity to review the rules of the new policy established in light of the events that spawned the issue. But I have some general thoughts already.

Students in a programing class wrote a break-out iPhone app downloaded over a quarter of a million times and suddenly the university wants a piece of the action.

Cornell should be so lucky (or glad it is not, as I shall argue). The founders of Blackboard began at the behest of a young professor in its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who suggested that they create a program that would allow her to put class materials on line. When that program, the predecessor of Blackboard, took off in a corporate form the question emerged: was it the intellectual property of the student or work for hire, and therefore belonged to the university? So the question went back to the professor: did she pay the students to make it, for example as a matter of work study, or was it a class assignment? The latter. The rest, of course, is history.

It was the right answer then, and it is answer that remains correct today. In an age where administrators (are forced by the HEOA) to tear their hair out to find ways to educate young people about the value of intellectual property, there is no better way for them to realize it than commercially. And it is not just the money (although the cost of education being what it is, let's not minimize that importance) but the active engagement in society. Involve them in projects that promote original work where they can acquire its awards immediately. That was the case here with the market model that underlies the iPhone app system. How exciting! (My son is a freshman computer science student ... hmm ... I can see the villa already :-)

The students come away from these experiences having learned many more valuable lessons than how to write a program. Most important, they develop a sense of self-worth through constructive problem solving. In the process -- donuts to dollars -- they have a more sophisticated concept of intellectual property than the average student who comes to college with years of "downloading habits" and a chip on their shoulder that is out of balance with current laws of intellectual property. That is what education should be all about, and if you are still in doubt take a look at Thomas Friedman's article in the NYT on Sunday for more evidence of the worth of active learning, problem solving, and genuine engagement in education.

The other lesson learned in this particular experience is how desperate colleges and universities have become to generate revenue. Rather than demonize the university, one might ask some questions about what circumstances placed them in this situation. How much of a percentage of their budget has the state legislature given them ... or taken away in the last decade? How much are they paying for-profit journals to fill their libraries when the authors are within the not-for-profit higher education system and virtually force to give the intellectual property away in order to play the promotion and tenure game? How have changes in the U.S. economy adversely affected them, from endowment losses to energy expenses?

Students learn best when not expected to delay gratification. Colleges and universities should be on the other side of the equation. I still believe in education for its own sake. I believe in educating the whole person, not just the computer science or the liberal arts part of the student's brains. We already get a pound of flesh in tuition; we would undermine our values to think of student work product as another revenue stream. I believe that our institutions are a part of the filament of values of American society. In turn, civil society should have the expectation that we transmit fundamental values as an integral part of the education. That expectation includes a respect for the law, and belief that when it is antiquated or wrong that the political and lawmaking process exists for people to actively engage in it for change. The gain for the student in this kind of thinking is the gain for all of us because it teaches them to become good citizens. For that we get tax breaks. For being the people and the institutions that guided them to success intellectually and emotionally, it is reasonable that in the long run we can expect something back from them in the form of alumni giving.



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