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Teaching in 2013

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My 11-year-old son came back home a few weeks back with a home assignment about the Internet for his technology course. This being a French school of not particularly good level, I did not expect much in terms of teaching. I was still surprised by the fact that most questions remained open and could lead to interesting discussions. Which we did: he turned out to be a lot more interested in the topic than I thought. We spent a couple of hours discussing about Internet, freedom of speech, copyrights, and digital property.

I read the first question: “Can you say anything you want on the Internet?”

My son’s reaction was: “No! You told me we must not use hate speech or insults on social sites and such.”

“Ok, but we still have freedom of speech in Europe, remember? This is actually part of the declaration of human rights. Why should it be different on the Internet?”

He thought for a while and said: “but still, if I say horrible things about someone on the Net I will get in trouble, no?”

“Yes you will, and there are laws against hate speech. It does not mean you cannot speak your mind, because freedom of speech is a foundation of our modern society, but you will have to face the consequences.”

“So what should I put as an answer?”, he asked.

“Let us word it this way: in countries that guarantee freedom of speech, you are free to say whatever you want on the Internet. I believe this is the only technically valid answer. By the way this does not only apply to the Internet.”

He read the next question: “I want to download my favourite artist’s album. Do I risk anything?”

The expected answer to this oriented question is probably something like: “Oh no! Internet is bad for music artists!”, so I tried to work around it. I told him: “Some musicians dedicate their lives to their music. These guys expect you to pay them for it through the sale of music-related items. In the past it used to be all about buying discs on vinyl, or tapes. Today they make a lot more money on concerts, T-shirts, and all kinds of merchandising shit. Some musicians do not even expect you to pay for recorded music, even if they officially sell it. And then you have artists distributing their music under a license that allows you to share it as much as you want without fee. These guys have understood that if they want their music to be heard they should let their fans do their communication for them by distributing songs as widely as possible. It brings more people to live concerts in the end, so more money to them.”

“Right. So how do you make a complete answer?”, he asked.

“Say this: for artists who expect to sell recorded music, you may get into trouble for downloading an album without payment. If the artists share their music freely (e.g., there is no issue.”

He read his assignment further: “Ok, next question is: I like to burn my own song compilation on CDs, is this legal?”. He thought for a while and said: “I don’t get it. What does it mean to burn a CD with songs?”

Ah yes… We are talking about somebody who was born after 2000, never owned a CD player or an audio CD, has probably never seen his father use music CDs, but has his own iPod with a bazillion tracks, more than I possibly had tapes when I was a teenager. It took me some time but I found a bunch of blank CDs hidden under a pile of dust and explained you could store 60 minutes of music on such plastic slices and that his fourth-generation iPod stored about 250 of those. He seemed a bit surprised but not so much.

“So people used to carry around CDs for music with just, what… 10 songs on it?” he asked.

“Pretty much. And we had tapes before that.”

“Oh… So what should I say there?”

I really wanted to write something like: “What is a CD?” but we are still not far enough from 2000 yet. Anyway, I looked it up and making your own mix tapes is (at least in France) considered fair use. My answer was: “Yes, if it is only for my personal use.”

Next question: “My friend sells CDs with music he downloaded. Is this legal?”

Ok, I’ll play. “If the music he downloaded is distributed with an appropriate license, this is perfectly legal. This is often not the case for popular artists though.”

The next discussion took us through Creative Commons and what sharing was about. You remain the copyright holder of what you produced without having to declare it to an authority, and then you get to choose under which license you distribute your creations. A lot of people share their creations with a liberal license that even allows other people to re-sell them. Popular artists being handled by music majors are still stuck in the past with exclusive licenses and distribution through physical media only.

A couple more questions about the Internet in general and we were done with it. The teacher wanted to nail the point and asked to be sent the assignments by email… in Word format. So be it.

Couple of weeks later, my son comes back home furious: he got the worst grade in his class. Not only that, but he started a lively discussion with his teacher that ended up with both accusing each other of outright lying.

My son asked him: “You said I was wrong when I said anybody can say what they want on the Internet. Does this mean freedom of speech does not apply to the Internet?”

The teacher replied: “Ok. you can say whatever you want, if you really want to spend the rest of your life in jail, go for it.”

“So you do admit there is freedom of speech, right? Why did you correct me as wrong in my paper?”

The teacher was caught unprepared on that one and refused to take it further. It was not the answer he was expecting and did not want to spend any time elaborating on this.

My son insisted: “Second question: I do not see how I could be more precise. Tell me what is missing?”

His teacher was apparently not aware of Creative Commons or equivalent licenses. My son tried to summarize our discussion about creations and licensing but he was quickly interrupted. “Bullshit! Downloading music is just against the law!”

From that point on, my son just gave up.

The past fifteen years of parenting have taught me at least one thing: you do not mess up with the feeling of injustice with kids. My son was just outraged that his teacher was so much left behind that he would not even try to discuss these points with 11-year-olds who have obviously spent some time thinking things through and brought back topics of discussion rather than ready-made answers.

“You know what?”, I told him, “your teacher has obviously prepared these questions 10 years ago and did not realize the world has been moving since then. You probably know more than he does on the topic right now and for that I am incredibly proud of you. Forget about the grades, nobody gives a shit. Be proud too: you know more than a 40-something who is supposed to teach the damn thing.”

I did not even try to meet the teacher. His role is not to teach the Internet to 11-year-olds who anyway all know more about it than he does. His role is to give homework and put grades according to pre-written answers that are older than the students themselves.

Maybe when you teach Latin, but Internet moves quite a bit faster than a dead language.

I am still toying with the idea of sending him the bill for a Microsoft Word license though, but to be fair: we used Export as docx from Google drive.

Written by nicolas314

Friday 21 June 2013 at 10:59 pm

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