In this cut-and-paste world, does copyright still matter in education?


Everyone does it (yes, even you…) - we have a class to prepare for 30 students, and ten minutes of our lunch break left to copy a worksheet. We get tot he photocopier and run off as many copies as we need and fly in to class. This is the bones of a busy teacher’s day, and the resources we use in the classroom are there for the taking, right? In most cases

this is true, and resource writers know that the materials they publish will be used and used again until the three or four copies in the staff room have fallen apart. They sell so many copies to so many schools that we don’t feel guilty - it’s simply part of the job. But how far can we go with copying and recopying teaching resources before we start facing ethical, or even legal, issues over copyright and Intellectual Property?



The balance between royalties and loyalties


We work in education, so what we do is for the greater good. Bending a few copyright laws is a small price to pay for the benefits we can bring to our classrooms, and nobody really notices anyway, do they?


The international standard on copyright, as carefully cited by universities, states that no more than 10% of a published work can be copied for commercial purposes, though (in the UK), some exceptions apply for non-commercial teaching under the definition of ‘fair dealing’. This means that if you work in a government-funded school, you have more freedom about what and how much you duplicate for educational purposes.


In the field of English language education, there are safeguards in place to ensure that the commercial rights of authors and content creators are protected: the British Council, who inspects and accredits language schools across the UK, have a strict policy (p39 of their inspection criteria) which adheres to copyright law, and inspect this aspect of a school’s resource management as a matter of course, in line with this law. In addition, initial teacher education courses in TESOL, such as the Trinity CertTESOL and Cambridge CELTA, insist that all photocopied materials display a reference to the original source, to both protect the original author’s rights and to demonstrate appropriate academic conventions, enabling assessors to gauge levels of potential plagiarism, illegal duplication of other published works, and originality of submitted work. This is simply good practice for all teachers, and should be enforced by centre managers for two reasons: to maintain academic integrity in their own institutions, and to set the example for students that referencing sources is good academic practice.


We must strike a balance between our loyalty to our students, and how we best provide them with the education that they need, and the support for materials writers, researchers and publishers who provide us with the resources that we use.

What happens if we don’t reference the resources we use?


A culture of appropriation, such as the one which exists today thanks to the enormous flow of information through the internet, social media and other communication, is dangerous for several reasons. Firstly, without knowing the source of any given piece of information, there is no way of telling how reliable that information is, or if it simply biased opinion, propaganda or outright false. Students should be taught to proactively search for sources of claims and statistics, for example, to ensure that what they are being taught is valid. This is a skill which many English language students will need to use in their academic futures, so should be built in to the learning environment from an early stage.


Secondly, this culture of appropriation devalues creativity and the production of high-quality resources. A coursebook, published teaching resource or reference work can take several people years to produce, so if this work is dissected, copied and repurposed (and often incorrectly interpreted or mis-quoted) widely without proper acknowledgement, this deters future writers from creating their own materials and adding to the culture of academic progression that should exist. Another assumption that is often made (judging by the quality of many ‘free’ online materials) is that because teaching materials are quick to copy and may only be used once by a teacher, that the same level of effort goes in to their creation. This further devalues quality published works that have taken time, effort and expense by their creators.


Finally, a lack of academic referencing or acknowledgement of sources opens the door for plagiarism, pure and simple. A lack of academic integrity has accompanied the rise in unchecked information flow, and presents a terrifying trend when we consider that statistics include students who will go on to become doctors, lawyers and presidents.

What about other media we use in the classroom?


It is not only the quality and reliability of printed materials that are at risk from unauthorised duplication. Other types of resource, from online videos, images and text are increasingly being passed from teacher to teacher for use in class, which is fantastic for daily planning, but can cause the same issues mentioned above: the freedom of information available on online video sites, social media platforms and other online sources means that it is essential to verify what is being shown to students as valid and constructive (even better, students can be taught how to do this themselves to protect their own quality of learning).


There is a lot of high-quality, beneficial content in print, digital and online media, and it is our responsibility as educators to safeguard this for our learners, both for their sakes and for the future of the educational culture in the world. This may seem trivial in that ten-minute dash to the photocopier, but big effects start from small considerations, so take the time to source (and verify, where practicable) the content you give to students, and you can play your part in building a stronger academic future by example.

Tom Garside is an international education developer and founder and Director of Teacher Training at Language Point. He has published a methodology e-guide for teachers of ESOL, a Pronunciation activity book centred on pronunciation card games, and leads academic development projects at English language institutions worldwide.


If you are interested to develop the ideas in this article further, either through training or consultancy at your place of work, contact us now for a free consultation.

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