Who owns the content and data produced in schools?


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who gets to eat this piece of pie -- and how should the pie be sliced up in the first place?
who gets to eat this piece of pie --
and how should the pie be sliced up in the first place?

Last year an article on Mashable made waves among some of the people I follow on Twitter. Kindergarten Teacher Earns $700,000 by Selling Lesson Plans Online (a later article bumped the figure up to over a million dollars) may admittedly describe a rather outlier occurrence. That said, it did bring attention to some emerging issues related to the educational content developed by teachers as part of their jobs, and the fact that such work may have economic value that can be quantified and realized in ways that, as a result of the introduction of new technologies and technology-enabled services (and the emerging markets that such things can catalyze and fuel), would have been thought impossible even a handful of years ago.

Not many people go into the teaching profession to make a lot of money. Few students expect to receive any monetary reward for anything they produce in school (beyond perhaps a few congratulatory rupees now and then from their proud grandparents). However, as more and more digital content and data are generated as a result of normal day-to-day teaching and learning activities in schools, might these data and this content have economic value that can be monetized, and if so:

Who stands to benefit?

Who has the rights to this content and these data,
and what might they do (and not do) with them?


I have recently been working with three middle income countries at different stages of large scale deployments of ICTs in their school systems that are facing a set of very similar issues (although they perhaps don't fully appreciate this fact yet). One of them rolled out computers at scale about a decade ago and is now looking to enter a new phase of activity, another has just finished a large scale roll out, and a third is planning for one. All projects include large scale digitization of existing educational content and administrative data. In the course of these projects, various types of educational content have been, are and will be created and shared in digital formats, and lots of new data have been, are, and will be created, captured and shared by related information systems as well.

While we were not asked to comment or provide advice related to intellectual property and privacy issues as part of World Bank engagement in these three places (we are rarely are, in my experience, at least in the education sector), I thought I would investigate to what extent the education authorities in these three countries had thought about some related issues that might be raised by a number of basic use cases that we observed during the course of visits to schools and administrative offices and/or which emerged in the course of related discussions.  Things like:

1. A student writes a research paper and sends it via a third party email service to her teacher.
2. A teacher creates a lesson plan and uploads it to the national education portal.
3. A student uses a digital camera as part of a science project and uploads them to an online photo-sharing service in the course of sharing them with his fellow students and teacher.
4. A student takes a test developed by an external vendor, which hosts the test and stores the test answers and results on its own (external) server.
5. A management information system collects personally identifiable data on individual teachers and students, with some of the data archived on systems outside of the country.
6. A learning management system licensed from a vendor automatically collects user data, which it uses to generate a series of automatic reports, and publishes some related analysis.
7. Student and teacher attendance information is input by teachers into a national education management information system, which is hosted on a vendors servers.

After observing and talking about these (and other) seemingly simple actions, we asked some basic questions like:

a. Who owns this content?
b. Who has rights to access this content?
c. Who has rights to use this content (in various ways)?
d. Who can assign or transfer these ownership and usage rights to others, and under what conditions?
e. Who is liable if this content is misused, or where the existance of such data or content  potentially violates an existing law or regulation?
f. Let's say you change platforms and/or vendors: How easy is it for you to export your content and data to some other platform or system?

Now, in some cases, people responded by saying they did not have answers to all of these sorts of questions, and that they didn't really care what the answers were: They had never considered them in the past and/or that they simply weren't that important.

Fair enough. It certainly isn't our place at the World Bank to tell the ministries of education with which we work what they should think is important, and what isn't.

However ...

It turned out that some of the vendors with which they had been working *had* in fact thought about these sorts of questions, and considered the potential answers to them important enough to cover in some of the contracts and licensing agreements that they signed.

And ...

Once these sorts of questions were posed to education officials, and we discussed their responses a bit, a number of them began to see how these sorts of things may indeed be important -- if not today, then perhaps at some point in the future.


While no one with whom I spoke foresaw a kindergarten teacher in their system making over a million dollars as a result of sharing lesson plans on line (truth be told, I doubt school officials in the U.S. state of Georgia contemplated such an occurrence either!), the fact is undeniable that content and data are increasingly being made available in digital formats that mean they can be shared and aggregated in ways that were not possible in the days of teacher lesson plans being posted on blackboards, school assignments being written down on paper and placed on a teacher's desk, and school administrative data being recorded on myriad paper forms shipped off to some unknown office inside the educational bureaucracy (and, truth be told, probably soon forgotten).

Even where the economic value of such data and content was not immediate apparent, the potential privacy issues associated with such data (especially since so much of it relates to *children*) were often quickly grasped by education officials.

What do you suggest we do, we were asked?

While I personally didn't have easy, definitive answers to these sorts of queries, I began by asking them some quick follow-up questions, including:

To what extent have these issues already been anticipated and addressed in your current rules, regulations and guidelines in the education sector?

(It turned out in some cases that there were in fact existing laws and guidelines that addressed, or seemed to address, some of these issues -- although perhaps not in the way the people who had originally drafted them had planned for.)


How are data/content ownership and usage rights assigned and treated within the various contracts you have signed with third parties who are helping to implement various components of your ICT/education activities?

Even if you are not sure how you wish to deal with these sorts of issues in the future, I said, you may at the very minimum want to begin by seeing how/if you are actually dealing with them now.

Based on recent exchanges with these three countries, I do wonder how many other places might find it useful to start asking such questions as well ...

Note: The public domain image used at the top of this blog post of a piece of apple pie ('who gets to eat this piece of pie -- and how should the pie be sliced up in the first place?') comes via Wikimedia Commons.



Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

Join the Conversation

Scott Kipp
March 07, 2013

This is a great post and its questions are likely to be relevant for a long, long time in the Information Age.

The effort of Teachers Pay Teachers strikes me as a platform able to both encourage teachers to improve their planning and improve their pedagogy. Teachers in most countries, as you allude to, are not at all well compensated, and the incentive of supplemental income is I'm sure of great value in improving their quality of life and efforts in the classroom (if they don't retire early from the profits).

But in the US, it is generally the case that the employer holds ownership over tangible works produced by the employee for his/her service. The case of a famous photograph taken at the Oklahoma City bombing is a good example: the employee took the picture while working, later licensed it in various formats for revenue, but lost a lawsuit from his employer who'd argued that the work was theirs as he'd produced it while conducting work for them:

The photographer in that case was forced to remit all revenue to the company, who later donated it to a victims' fund.

Lesson plans could be a little stickier to define as a single, fixed & tangible product, but is the principle the same? (I've put the question to the Copyright Law Edx course now underway at Harvard Law as well). I'm sure there are instances where the lesson plans being sold online are tangible reproductions of something produced for the teachers' employer, if not exact replicas. But other factors could work in the teachers' favor: perhaps the plans weren't used in school, and/or were produced at home (during uncompensated time). Even if the plans being sold are derivative plans of something produced for use in the classroom, what strikes me is that it would seem to fall squarely on the school to enforce whatever rights it thinks it retains on the plans. In civil law systems, such as France, it's the employee who retains author rights by default, unless specified otherwise.

For policy and for practitioners, what are the main considerations for thinking about ownership issues? Teachers Pay Teachers, as a platform, rightly puts the onus of copyright infringement on its users (buyers and sellers) - but as it also notes that buyers are often school systems and publishers (the site should actually be called "Schools Pay Teachers" but doesn't have the same ring). So who ultimately wins in that scenario? The authoring teacher selling his/her plans gains revenue and some kind of encouragement to improve plans, improve reputation, but the sale is a cost to the purchasing school, which may have been unnecessary if a freely licensed repository such as http://www.sharemylesson.com/ were the dominant practice. When is it appropriate to advocate for one over the other?

One route (http://www.sharemylesson.com/) uses open & accessible crowd-knowledge to identify & vote-up best practices and share content, and the other uses cash incentives to make plans marketable and profitable to encourage teachers. For policymakers, what considerations need to be taken into account to determine which route and which ownership arrangement is ultimately better serving the public good?

Karen Fasimpaur
March 09, 2013

Great post. These are critically important issues, and as you point out, it's much better to think them through and put into place supportive policy beforehand, rather than trying to deal with unanticipated fallout later.

This issue has recently come up in Prince George's County in the US with a contemplated policy that would take ownership of students' work. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-02/local/36703985_1_school-b…
This was a wake-up call to many.

In my experience with educators all over the world, the main goal of is SHARING. (Here, I am talking about sharing intellectual property such as lesson plans and content. Personal data, such as assessment information and usage patterns, is a separate issue.)

If the goal is SHARING, a sharing license, such as Creative Commons www.creativecommons.org, is a good solution. This kind of license lets the original creator* keep ownership of the content, while also letting others use it as long as they attribute the source.

In many projects, applying a Creative Commons license has been a mutually agreeable solution that has facilitated sharing while still allowing creators to keep their copyright and be recognised for their work.

* the teacher if created on their own time (Note: This needs to be clearly specified in contracts. Right now, it is often a gray area legally) or the district if created by employees on company time

Michael Trucano
March 20, 2013

Thanks for the comments, Karen -- and for the link to the Washington Post article, which I actually wanted to include in the original post, but which I couldn't locate!