Lawsuit Fears and Digital Course Materials: 5 Things We Don't Do

How does the fear that you and your institution will get sued for copyright infringement alter the way in which you provide educational materials for your students?

April 5, 2012

How does the fear that you and your institution will get sued for copyright infringement alter the way in which you provide educational materials for your students? In balancing the needs of rights holders vs. learners, does the fear of litigation change how you make decisions? To what degree are your efforts to comply by copyright driven by what you think is a fair and equitable approach as opposed to risk avoidance?

5 Things We Don't Do: (or maybe you are braver than I am?)

1. Always Provide Course Content (Readings / Videos) in Formats Compatible with Mobile Devices: What percentage of your students own smart phones? Or a tablet? How many of these students would like to have the option to read course materials or watch course videos on their portable screens? One reason why I buy Kindle books is that I can keep up with my reading on my iPhone Kindle app whenever I have a few minutes. My books are always in my pocket, so being caught waiting for a meeting or a bus is no big deal. Getting curricular materials into formats that can be read on mobile devices is not always easy. Articles from our library digital databases may not be available or optimized for the smart phone.  

2. Enable Downloading of Course Media: Even if mobile versions exist, they often require a live web connection. Our students may want to download the content so it is available to read when they do not have a WiFi (or cell) signal. What is possible with the NYTimes mobile app or the Kindle app (syncing and offline reading) is not possible with much of the course material that we have purchased. We could make it available, converting the publisher documents or studio videos to a mobile friendly downloadable format, but we don't want to get sued.

3. Encourage Student Mashing Up of Course Videos: We are pretty good at streaming course videos to our students, usually behind authentication and linked through our learning management system (LMS). Media management platforms like Kaltura and Ensemble have made managing and publishing curricular video much easier. But we tend to lock-down this content, disabling the ability to download the media files out of fear that they will be shared outside of the course or the institution. We don't want to get sued. The downside of locking down our video is that we make it very difficult to create assignments that involve media mashups. Students can view the course video, but they can't easily sample, edit, remix and share this media back. The learning is passive, just at the point where video editing tools like iMovie and media publishing is incredibly easy.   

4. Maintain Digital Content After The Course End Date: We have this strange idea that our students will not want to view course content once the class is over. Class videos are only available during the length of the course. This cuts-off the opportunity for students to go back and view material that might be relevant in a subsequent class (or even as alumni). When curriculum has an expiration date it loses much of its potential value.   

5.  Provide Audio Versions for Assigned Books: Ideally we would be providing all class content in multiple formats. Paper, digital and audio. Let the students choose what format is best for them at which time. Audiobooks are a particular blind spot. I bet that we would assign more books, and these books would get read more, if we could provide an audio option. Most of my reading is audio, with books purchased from Audible. Listening to my books is efficient as I can multitask - and I know that students are busier than I am.   It would be wonderful if our library could purchase the audiobook and deliver an mp3 file that all the students could use.  Unless we crack the audiobook ourselves, however, this is goal is not possible.  No publisher or audio provider (certainly not Amazon) offers affordable audiobooks for courses.

I'm talking about curricular materials that we have purchased, usually through our library but sometimes directly from publishers. In every case above the publisher or rights holder has been paid, but the content is provided in a single format or through a single delivery platform.  

In almost every case we (educational technologists, media specialists, librarians, or faculty) are adept enough at using media tools that we could convert the digital curricular content into a format that would meet the goal of multi-platform and downloadable usage.  We do not take these steps because we are worried about getting sued.  

Is there a way forward?


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