Worlds of Education

Copyright problems impede cross-border teaching

published 28 September 2023 updated 29 September 2023
written by:

For teachers who work across national borders, copyright and licensing restrictions can create barriers that prevent them from doing their work. This affects the quality of instruction, and also impedes the growth of global learning strategies that otherwise have the potential to lower the North/South gap in educational access.

Let’s take a teacher we’ll call Tamar Teacherly, who produces weekly course modules from her home office in a country in the Global North for students in the Global North and South. Her political science lectures are full of news clips, audio and video from press conferences, and excerpts from articles—all illustrating her arguments about the interrelationships between diplomacy and journalism. But the course’s online platform has an automatic detection system for copyrighted material and blocks it from showing up for students.

Isha Instructor works from a branch campus located in the Global North for a university that is in a different country in the Global North. Her students are located in several countries. The sociology publications that Isha wants to share with her students are only hosted on the main campus’ platform and cannot be accessed by the students in the other countries because the university library did not include such terms in its license agreement.

Taika Tester and Gary Grader work in two different countries, one in the Global North and one in the Global South. They have developed an innovative, collaborative curriculum to study cross-cultural international studies, focusing on conflict resolution. But when they try to implement it, they face a welter of different copyright laws, library resources, and platforms. So, they rely on data privacy-insecure social media and ad hoc, personal accounts. As a result, their curriculum can’t be shared or duplicated with other teachers.

Each of these teachers’ problems go back to copyright laws, whether it’s because a platform is over-patrolling copyright infringement, different jurisdictions’ copyright laws clash, or because vendors offer highly restrictive licenses to enforce copyright protection and/or sky-high pricing for electronic materials. By the way, behind each of these stories is a real person or two, whose identity is being protected.

"Of course, teachers are ingenious problem-solvers, and almost two-thirds of respondents reported they tried to find a way to adapt their teaching to the problems they faced. All their solutions made both them and their students pay a price for the tangled international landscape for copyright."

The latest study by EI, conducted through American University’s School of Communication, shows that these individual cases are more than anecdotes. They are evidence of a wider problem.

The study draws from a survey of teachers in higher education, who work across borders—whether working with a co-teacher in another nation, having students in other nations, or working in an international branch of their institution. It was fielded worldwide, in several languages, between March 15 and May 15, 2023. 214 teachers answered the survey. Respondents came from all five regions of the world, and so did their students. The most common regions were Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific.

About half of the respondents said they had problems with copyright or weren’t sure if they did. Their most common problems were accessing appropriate teaching materials, whether for the students or teachers. Some access problems had to do with libraries’ contracts with vendors, others with commercial platforms such as Netflix, and some with overzealous copyright infringement filters. Other problems included not being able to show student work outside the classroom because of copyright limitations and finding that clashes between copyright laws of different jurisdictions meant that students had to receive different assignments.

Of course, teachers are ingenious problem-solvers, and almost two-thirds of respondents reported they tried to find a way to adapt their teaching to the problems they faced. These teachers were indeed often able to find work-arounds for their problems. Some solutions involved lowering expectations. For instance, they found second- and third-best teaching materials. They abandoned exercises that involved full-group participation, because some students could not participate. Some solutions cost them money personally; they purchased or licensed work themselves, for instance. It always cost them precious personal time to find alternatives. And some solutions involved turning a blind eye to what they had been told to do or what they thought the law might require.

All their solutions made both them and their students pay a price for the tangled international landscape for copyright. Their courses were not what they wanted them to be. Their work was not able to be replicated appropriately for future teachers because of ad hoc problem-solving.

These problems perpetuate barriers to greater equity in educational access across the world. When teaching material is hypothetically available but too expensive, when it has never been licensed for use in a national jurisdiction, when the electronic wizardry used to teach internationally is rigged to punishingly high automatic settings for copyright infringement, when the copyright terms of a particular country don’t let either co-teacher or the students share material appropriately, then the people who pay the price are today’s and future students. As a result, the once-bright promise of a thriving marketplace for global education continues to be unrealistic and unachievable.

Educators and policymakers need to work together to create policy environments more friendly to education. At the moment, educators and their students are hostage to the whims and dictates of private companies’ pricing and terms of service, to the varying terms of copyright regimes, and to the willingness of educational administrators to underfund global projects under the assumption that educators will always find a way.

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