This post focuses on the teaching of information literacy, traditionally one of the key missions of the school library.  In a participatory culture, authorship and ownership become increasingly confusing issues.  We have taught our students to credit the source of the ideas used when creating new content.  It is standard practice in the academic world to cite one’s sources in their bibliography.  This is so much ingrained in that culture, that there are intricate punishment and reward systems based around the practice.  But in a culture that encourages the use of others’ content to remix, re-edit or otherwise modify to create one’s own, authorship becomes difficult to ascertain.  Even in the academic world, we have begun to acknowledge that Wikipedia may have some credibility, but we cite a Wikipedia article either as having no (single) author or a “corporate” author.  We give up trying to determine where the ideas come from.  Having said that, Wikipedia articles typically do a very good job in acknowledging their own sources.  Not only is it difficult to determine clear authorship, the author’s don’t really care to be acknowledged.  This is a community built on the idea that we contribute because it feeds our passions.  We add to the repository of knowledge for the good of the community or we add to the discussion because we are inspired to do so, fully understanding that someone may then take inspiration from our work.

From the teacher librarian’s perspective, we then have to think very carefully about what this means to our students.  Given my context (university-prep school) it is easy for me to simply say that the students are being prepared for the world of higher education and therefor must learn how things work in the academic world.  They must cite heir sources in a formal citation style and understand format, punctuation and content order.  That, of course, is a cop-out and entirely misses the point of the learning opportunity.  Even if we did take this stance, the world of higher education itself is currently re-examining practices and philosophies and we’d be aiming at a moving target.

What is important is the thinking behind what we do.  It is still important to give credit where credit is due.  How we do that may look very different than it might have 10 years ago, but the concept of acknowledging sources is a good one.  We may not want to attach a “works cited” page to the end of our YouTube video, but we may roll some credits.  We may not post a “references” list at the end of the blog post, but we do hyperlink to the sources in the body of the text.  We care about crediting our sources because it shows a lineage of thinking.  It gives a context for our own work and it credits those who have inspired us.  These are the important ideas that need to be taught to our students.

The idea of plagiarism is addressed in Spreadable Media by way of talking about quotation.  The authors state that, “In a world where if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead, if it can’t be quoted, it might not mean anything.”(p.188, Kindle Location 3375)  They’re going beyond the simple act of quoting text here.  They’re talking about re-editing video and song mashups.  Quotation in this sense is the identifiable use of one piece of content to create another.  The truth is that this practice is not new.  Composers have been doing it for centuries through the  quotation of other composers’ easily recognizable melodic fragments or directly stealing each others ideas.  Jazz musicians do it all the time.  It’s called respecting tradition as players give a nod in their solos to ideas or melodies that have inspired them.  What is new is the ease with which this is done across a myriad of media and the potential for a much wider audience than ever before.

Schools and school libraries in particular need to get their heads around the difference between quotation and plagiarism and what that looks like in a digital world.  Conversations I’ve had with teachers range from, “plagiarism is no longer a concern as it is so much a part of our culture,” to “we must persecute every potential instance of plagiarism to prevent it from becoming more rampant than it already is.”  The truth is in recognition of sources and cultural norms.  The re-creation of a YouTube video is more often than not expected by the one who posted the original.  As discussed in Spreadable Media, it is sometimes outright requested (page 186, Kindle Location 3338).  When a student submits a demonstration of their knowledge for assessment, the primary concerns, from an information literacy standpoint, should be of recognizing authorship where possible and the understanding of the cultural norms within the community that they are working.  When a student submits a video through a link to it’s posting on YouTube, they have each foot in a different culture.  They are working within the YouTube culture but they are also submitting their work in an academic culture.  This may mean that they might have to roll some credits at the end of the video to acknowledge sources that would be a given within the YouTube community.  They might also have to point out to the person assessing their work that the comment thread below the posting is an essential part of the demonstration of knowledge and acknowledgement of the lineage of ideas preceding the presented product.

At the same time, students need to be able to have good discussions about why one would acknowledge their sources and what that does for their own work.  They need to think about crediting and respecting their inspirations and showing a knowledge of the lineage of ideas.  This is what is at the core of the academic citation process and it has as much value outside the academic world as it does within it.  Both students and teachers need to recognize that that acknowledgement aspect is not going to be as easy or clean as it used to be.  We are going to have sources with no authors that may have relevancy and credibility within the context of the work being done.  We are going to have media forms and delivery methods that citation styles don’t deal with well.  This is all OK as long as we are respecting the reasons behind the rules that have become so much a part of the academic culture.

3 thoughts on “Spreadable Media – an Interaction Part 4

  1. This is a fascinating set of questions, Marc…and I keep thinking back, as well, to questions raised by projects like the Curator’s Code which asks what acknowledgement should be given to the person who helped us find content that would have been near impossible to find in the digital overload without their help. We see this happening a lot in places like Twitter, where people get a tip of the hat for bringing something to another person’s attention. Is that act of “curation” and “circulation” an activity that, in some cases at least, should be acknowledged? See more on the Curator’s Code here:

  2. Yes, the Curator’s Code site is interesting. I went over and checked them out after reading (and commenting on) your essay at the Spreadable Media site. I think that we have a lot of thinking to do to ascertain what is ethical and what is “legal” in terms of how we use and acknowledge the use of others’ work. As I know I wrote somewhere, I think that education has to address the ethics of these transactions as the legalities and social conventions continue to shift.

    1. I think it’s key here, Marc, the distinction you make between legality and ethics. There are some murky questions as to how deep attribution should go, but I’m excited that it’s a discussion we’re having collectively now…

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