coa7.jpgHere’s another section of my upcoming chapter for Terry Freedman’s Coming of Age 2.0. This section examines information ethics in a Web 2.0 information landscape.

Social responsibility and information ethics

These fluencies involve contributing positively to the learning community, practicing ethical and responsible behavior regarding information and information technology, recognizing the principles of intellectual freedom, respecting intellectual property, and ensuring equitable information access.

It’s increasingly tough to model respect for intellectual property in a world of shift and change, in a world of mixing and mashing, in a world of ubiquitous sharing, casual online communication, in a world of pirating. Debate continues to rage regarding how to balance users’ needs for access to information while protecting the rights of content creators to profit from their labor. And it is far bigger than our classrooms.

Students are rightly confused and frustrated. The Pew Internet & American Life study, Teen Content Creators and Consumers, quoted researcher Mary Madden in its press release (

Today’s online teens have grown up amidst the chaos of the digital copyright debate, and it shows. . .At a time when social norms around digital content don’t always appear to conform with the letter of the law, many teens are aware of the restrictions on copyrighted material, but believe it’s still permissible to share some content for free. (Lenhart & Madden, 2005, Press release)

Can we create a climate of information ethics? Can we guide students to behavior that is fair and just and respectful of intellectual property without compromising their creativity and enthusiasm? Today, a single student project might incorporate downloaded video clips, music, and art, as well as quoted text. It is also likely to be broadcast.

When projects stayed in our classrooms, limiting the amount of borrowed content and simple documentation were generally enough for students to ethically use the creative work of others. Limited use of the works of others in any media generally fell under the guidelines of educational Fair Use. With students regularly publishing and broadcasting beyond classroom walls, they need to take greater care and use new strategies when they borrow the creative works of others. On the Web, it is not always possible to get permission from or even identify a content creator.

Multimedia authoring and Web-based learning are way bigger and far more common then they were back when the Fair Use Guidelines for Multimedia ( were created in 1996. This document, as well as CONFU: The Conference
on Fair Use, with its Rules of Thumb and Four Factor Fair Use Test, describe how educators and students may use copyrighted materials in limited ways.

We can help by teaching students about the Guidelines when they produce and post media. We can ease some of the confusion by teaching students about the new flexible protections and freedoms made possible by Creative Commons licensing. While the “Big C” means permission is usually necessary for students to publish or broadcast content created by others, Creative Commons presents a “some rights reserved” model. The nonprofit site shares a “flexible range of protections and freedoms” that allows authors, musicians, visual artists, and educators to share their work while maintaining ownership and copyright. The Creative Commons website features two comics, as well as Get Creative, a video describing the White Stripes’ approach to sharing their music without intermediaries These resources are designed to help explain the new licensing concepts to learners, educators, and content creators.

We can guide students to use the resources linked to on the Creative Commons site, to public domain resources, and to the growing number of copyright-friendly portals where individuals are choosing to share their own video, audio, images, and more. (Here’s a starter list from our website

The great conversation that is developing knowledge is not limited by geography or culture. Learners now have global reach. They are likely to be interested in using content created beyond the borders of their country and their limited legal understandings of copyright. How do the laws regarding copyright translate across multiple borders? We need to watch the work of the World Intellectual Property Organization .

Even simple documentation is complicated by the fact that the official style books have not kept up with students’ new array of information choices. If we expect ethical behavior, we have to make it less painful for learners who want to behave ethically. Even before the examples hit the standard style manuals, we should facilitate students’ ethical behavior by adapting and modeling citation formats for blogs and wikis and podcasts and whatever is coming next. Interactive citation tools have been around for some time and do help students keep up with the shifting formats between formal print editions. Debbie and Damon Abilock’s NoodleBib about information options as it generates citations. This summer NoodleBib added an interactive note card generator. David Warlick’s Son of Citation Machine offers guidance for the new communication tools as well.

Blog space appears rife with confusion about linking to and posting the creative materials of others. An interview with intellectual property experts and law bloggers Kimberlee Weatherall and Eugene Volokh offers 14 Copyright Tips for Bloggers

The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a joint project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a variety of prestigious university law clinics, offers explanation of intellectual property in the digital information landscape. offers A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics, a document well worth discussing with student bloggers. David Warlick posts and discusses his own proposed A Student & Teacher Information Code of Ethics on his 2 Cents Worth Blog

Social responsibility is also about etiquette. I’ve taken to asking audiences to “blog kindly” when I present. Many of my colleagues (and I) have been stung by the words of defamatory bloggers who write with unnecessary venom about something we said. Bloggers do not have editors. Bloggers blog fast. Rash thoughts may be posted before a blogger really chews on an idea, before emotion subsides, before rational thought has time to take over. In classroom blogs, learners should argue and debate and criticize, but they also should be sensitive and respectful. As teachers, we can inspire a degree of impulse control for learners who blog.

While disagreement is evident, much of the online discussion relating to blogging ethics considers the following guidelines. Bloggers should:

  • credit their sources,
  • check their facts,
  • admit when they discover they have made a mistake,
  • avoid harming others,
  • and disclose their biases

Some of the discussion rejects the notion that we need a code of ethics. Regardless of how strongly we feel or do not feel about guidelines for this changing and more casual writing environment, as teachers, we have some ability to shape its development in academics. I would like to see the next generation of adult bloggers treat each other with courtesy and respect. Simply having the discussion is important.

Social responsibility extends to interactions wikis, as well. In class wikis, we may need to discuss and establish guidelines for how we modify information and negotiate content. Guidelines for wiki construction could be class-generated, with the wiki’s about page serving as a kind of charter for behavior, trust, accountability, and contribution. These guidelines should serve to build the culture of the wiki. Even in an open authorship environment, participants should see both their freedoms and responsibilities to the community.

Lessons in social responsibility extend to the personal use of MySpace and other social networking spaces. Employers and admissions offices now regularly check “credentials” on social networking sites just as they do the credentials on students’ applications and resumes. All things being equal they may just pass on the kid with the beer, the joint, or the skimpy t-shirt. The students we care about need to know this.

This social responsibility standard also relates to democratic access to information. Teachers and librarians can act to prevent the growth of an information underclass. Students need to learn about accessible alternatives to commercial software. Teachers and librarians can guide learners to open source options and proliferating web-based applications. (Here’s our library’s list for students and teachers

As teachers and librarians, we too have social responsibilities. While we look out for the safety of our students, we must also protect their access to the information and communication tools they need to learn effectively. We must speak up against school and government initiatives that prevent access to critical tools.


Coggins, Sheila Ann Manue(2006). 14 copyright tips for bloggers. Retrieved September 2, 2006, from

CONFU: The Conference on Fair Use. (2004). Retrieved September 9, 2006, from

Educational Multimedia Fair Use Guidelines Development Committee. (1996). Fair Use Guidelines for Multimedia. Retrieved September 9, 2006, from

Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2005).Teen Content Creators and Consumers. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved September 4, 2006, from

Monitoring the legal climate for Internet activity. Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.
Retrieved September 5, 2006, from

Online News Association. (2006). A bloggers’ code of ethics. Retrieved September 8, 2006, from

Next time: Web 2.0 meets synthesis