Worlds of Education

Expanding rights to develop critical thinking

published 25 April 2023 updated 27 April 2023
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Is it acceptable that we cannot use all the material we need to teach? What if we must submit every pedagogical decision involving something produced by a third person for legal clearance? When the alternative is to pay, what restrictions and exclusions does it imply?

Access to knowledge so that students can develop creative, critical, and innovative skills is a fundamental part of a teacher's work, and of the right to education. However, current legal frameworks in many parts of the world do not provide for exceptions allowing teachers to share or freely use works produced by others for teaching or research purposes.

In recent years, unions affiliated to Education International have joined forces to lobby the World Intellectual Property Organisation to promote an international treaty on limitations and exceptions to copyright when a literary, artistic, or scientific work is used in educational institutions, libraries, and archives.

A legal instrument of this kind would enable us to overcome legislation worldwide, and in particular in Latin America and the Caribbean, which does not provide safe working conditions for us teachers, especially when the use of these productions involves the use of online platforms or communications.

“What is at stake is not only our security as workers and our ability to do our jobs properly, but also the people's right to education, both individually and collectively.”

Some national laws specify the maximum amount of a given work that may be cited in a publication without making any distinction as to whether the immediate purpose of the publication is profit or education. Others allow certain uses upon payment of a fee.

As I write these lines, memories of the 25 years I have been teaching in a public university come flooding into my mind: that film I had obtained in one format and had to copy to another in order to share it with my students; that book on the history of Argentine industry that was out of print, by an author who had died a few years before, and that many students came to borrow from me to photocopy in its entirety because the first chapters had thrilled them; the student who, after working online on a story by an author she had never read, found and analysed three whole books by the same author for her final paper; the Argentine folk song that we played in class a couple of weeks ago and that sparked an passionate debate about the living conditions of rural workers.

I could go on, but these examples (which may or may not be illegal depending on the country) are sufficient to highlight some essential issues: the right to education, the right to be creators, the right to decent work, and the fact that a class is not a closed package of products but a human relationship in which knowledge is built on the basis of certain resources that are brought into play and that each teacher or team determines.

What is at stake is not only our security as workers and our ability to do our jobs properly, but also the people's right to education, both individually and collectively. I am writing from Argentina, a country where education is compulsory by law until the end of secondary education: the exercise of this human right cannot be subject to the ability of a person or a country to pay to have access to the materials that are necessary to ensure the conditions that guarantee the quality of education and that do not deepen the socio-economic gap between those who can be educated with the necessary inputs and those who do not have them.

Every teacher knows that the development of teaching materials depends on the characteristics of the group that we are working with. This is why it is impossible to argue that the solution to this problem consists of predetermining a percentage of each work or a particular set that is freely accessible. The same theme or problem may require a different strategy adapted to students, to the generation to which they belong, to the historical moment in which we are educating, to the dynamics that arise from the interaction; for that, it is necessary to have access to the whole work and to all the works.

We, teachers, do not "use" scientific, literary, or artistic works, we do not use them to create a package that can be traded on the market. What we do is incorporate a material into a situation in which, together with students, we construct knowledge based on these resources.

Which materials are we talking about? There are two main types: scientific works produced by researchers who, in many cases, belong to the university system itself, which in turn needs access to them in order to teach, research, and generate policies linking and coordinating with the local community in which it operates; and literary and artistic productions (visual, audiovisual, musical, multimedia). Lending, copying, reproducing, and re-creating them is part of the usual teaching processes at all levels, from pre-school to higher education and university.

With regard to the first, there is a tremendous effort being made in Latin America to build institutional repositories and open access publications for writers and readers, which must be accompanied by a thorough discussion of evaluation systems.

I would like to highlight the right to be creators. Access to works is essential to generate new audiences, and new scientists, writers, artists: audiences that are aware of the existence of a universe of productions that are not necessarily the first ones they find on a platform or in an Internet search; and producers of scientific, artistic, and literary materials that can develop as such without socio-economic differences preventing them from doing so.

The education of students who can develop critical capacities with respect to the productions that circulate in society, deepen their understanding of the contexts in which they are produced and conceive themselves as subjects who create discourses, who appropriate languages, and who make this circulation possible (and who can decide to interrupt or discard it) requires access to and engagement with all those components of the works that those of us who teach them consider necessary.

Going beyond so-called "common sense", which is increasingly vulnerable to the circulation of fake news, stories with no grounding in reality, is essential for the defense of democratic societies.

We are demanding the establishment of limitations and exceptions to copyright and related rights, but our demand is the expansion of rights: rights for those who study and for the people who need that knowledge production, rights for those who teach, rights to continue creating so that humanity (and not corporations or artificial intelligence) can write its own history.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.