25 October 2008

Cyberspace and Meatspace

Like most of you, I am bombarded (mostly by choice) with information from a variety of on-line sources. I subscribe to a wide selection of feeds in my Google Reader account and while I primarily "follow" educators in Twitter, they are very diverse in their interests and what they share. All sorts of ideas tend to percolate up. I save the ones that intrigue me most for a few days and then decide if they belong in more "permanent" storage (add to delicious account, blog...) or if I just need to let them go. But given this time to ruminate, I am often surprised at the various connections that are available out there. My big "A-ha!" for this week has to do with how the ability to share and create using tools from cyberspace is causing ethical questions in meatspace.

Two things I saw last Sunday started my thinking, but it wasn't until a seemingly unrelated tweet was passed along Friday night that I finally made the connection. The first idea was posted by Will Richardson over at Weblogg-ed. He wrote about Our Kids as Criminals---a concept pulled from Lawrence Lessig's new book about "how we need to start rethinking traditional copyright law in the context of these easy sharing and copying technologies. And what’s especially relevant to our conversation is that he frames it in the way this all shakes out for our kids. In talking about how the government continues to create laws that 'wage war' against the copyright infringement that many youngsters engage in every day."
In a world in which technology begs all of us to create and spread creative work differently from how it was created and spread before, what kind of moral platform will sustain our kids, when their ordinary behavior is deemed criminal? Who will they become? What other crimes will to them seem natural?
I find this intriguing. There are lots of people out there (and of all ages) who are using 21st century tools to engage in incredible work that doesn't always follow the traditional rules. Is this okay? Should we ask them to conform to the "old ways," or do the rules need to be updated?

And then Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock threw out this video of Clay Shirky speaking at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. His point is that since the invention of the printing press, people have been complaining about "information overload," but maybe that isn't the right way to look at things. Perhaps we really need to be talking about "filter failure," or the ability to just get the information we want and need. Now, this is a long clip (~25 minutes), but certainly worth your time.

The most interesting part for me is when Shirky talks about the "cheating via Facebook" scandal from earlier this year. (I blogged a bit about this, but again, it was Bora who really initiated this conversation.) The story goes something like this: a college student organized a study group for a chemistry class he was taking. The meetings took place on Facebook as opposed to in a library or someone's house. The university charged the student with over 100 counts of cheating. Here again, we've got some sort of moral dilemma when we mash up Web 2.0 technologies with the "real world." According to Shirky, the point of contention is not the formation of a study group itself. It is the number of people involved. You see, if you have a "live" study group, you will have to limit the number of attendees (only so many can sit around the table in the library) and the norms of the group will develop to prevent free loaders. It will be obvious if someone is showing up to just collect notes and ideas, but contributes nothing. In the cheating-by-Facebook case, the university contended that with well over 100 people in a group, there had to be at least one free-rider: someone who was therefore cheating and had been enabled to do so by the group's founder.

And this is where my thoughts stopped on Sunday. I couldn't deny the possibility of free-riders as groups both increased in size and could also have nearly anonymous participation. And these are not traditionally operated groups---they are self-organized and directed, rather than managed in a top down way. And yet, I wasn't so sure that this whole Facebook thing qualified as "cheating."

Take this blog, for example. In a real world sense, the content is "mine." I write it. I create the posts. However, I choose to share these ideas with you...and in doing so, I give up my ownership in some ways. Might someone cheat and "steal" my content and call it their own? Sure. I'm not sure what I could actually do about that...and I'm not convinced it would be worth the time and energy to do so. The only way for anyone---a blogger, an artist, a performer, and so forth---to retain exclusive rights to their work is simply not to share it with anyone. And what good is that?

I was stuck at this point with my thinking until someone else passed along a link about The Trouble of "Free Riding" on Friday night. (Thank you, Twitter!)
The idea of "free riding" is based on a couple of key 20th-century assumptions that just don't apply to the online world. The first assumption is that the production of content is a net cost that must either be borne by the producer or compensated by consumers. This is obviously true for some categories of content—no one has yet figured out how to peer-produce Hollywood-quality motion pictures, for example—but it's far from universal. Moreover, the real world abounds in counterexamples. No one loses sleep over the fact that people "free ride" off of watching company softball games, community orchestras, or amateur poetry readings. To the contrary, it's understood that the vast majority of musicians, poets, and athletes find these activities intrinsically enjoyable, and they're grateful to have an audience "free ride" off of their effort...

The second problem with the "free riding" frame is that it fails to appreciate that the sheer scale of the Internet changes the nature of collective action problems. With a traditional meatspace institution like a church, business or intramural sports league, it's essential that most participants "give back" in order for the collective effort to succeed. The concept of "free riding" emphasizes the fact that traditional offline institutions expect and require reciprocation from the majority of their members for their continued existence. A church in which only, say, one percent of members contributed financially wouldn't last long. Neither would an airline in which only one percent of the customers paid for their tickets.
First of all, can I just say that this article has the best term I've read in a long time: meatspace institution. Maybe it's been out there for awhile and I've missed it. But I haven't seen anything which so ably captures the common drudgery of so many places and things.

More importantly, however, the article makes a point that perhaps we're creating a problem where there isn't one: "We don't need to 'solve' the free rider problem because there are more than enough people out there for whom the act of contributing is its own reward." In other words, having an on-line study group of 100 people is not a moral issue because of the nature of cyber interactions. In the real world, you'd have a problem. We don't have to solve issues that don't really exist, in that sense.

Using this blog again as an example, what this also means is that these new forms of media don't have participation as a requirement. I can choose to post a lesson plan I developed---but readers here neither have to comment nor share one of their own. It doesn't mean that you can't. It just means that we are each free to make our own choices about interactions here. It is not a 1:1 environment (as we might expect with a meatspace study group) and I don't think it would be functional if it was. That is the beauty and power of this type of space.

Now, this doesn't take care of problems directly associated with copyright as the various spaces clash, but I can't help but think that there may be some lessons there. (And I may not be able to resist getting Lessig's book to see what he suggests.) At best, we can ask that people respect copyright laws (which vary from country to country---and in a cyber world I'm unsure how such borders would be determined). Enforce them? I don't know that they can be. Is someone going to prosecute every instance of filesharing, "right-click-saving" of graphics, cell phone camera captures of artwork? It's just not possible. That doesn't make copyright infringement okay by default, it just means that we are going to have to approach these issues in a way that makes sense.

In the meantime, I'm starting to wonder what the future holds. Students don't need us to gather information for them. They don't necessarily need us to teach them about how to use web 2.0 tools. If we do provide them with a basic skill set, they will learn for themselves---differentiating resources and strategies to best suit their own needs. As educators, we will still have a large role in this, as well as helping students continue to improve. But I think it is already past the time where we will be able to reasonably impose meatspace rules in a way that makes sense for cyberspace activities.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Seems to me like it's only in the last decade and a half that teachers have become even marginally aware of copyright law.

With budgets that never made the grade, and "original content" preferred over textbooks, who among us has not savaged copyright to serve the students?

Certainly, nobody would admit to it in this day of political correctness, so it seems the question has been framed somewhat differently these days...and technology takes the blame.

Bottom line: Some people create, some people steal. The economies never really change.

Not makeing moral judgements here...or did I miss the point?

BTW, "meatspace" is a gruesome, grisly term. Something out of a bad SF story.

Other than all that, SG, how was your day? :D

The Science Goddess said...

The thing is, though, that "everybody's doing it" doesn't make something the right thing to do. How do we resolve this with on-line vs. real world content, I wonder, when kids don't see any difference?

Roger Sweeny said...

In the meantime, I'm starting to wonder what the future holds. Students don't need us to gather information for them.

1. They often need our help to gather good (understandable, accurate) information.

2. The information students want to gather is often very different from the information we want them to know. They are fantastically interested in pop culture, sports, and EACH OTHER. We want them to know science and history and stuff like that.

Roger Sweeny said...

"Meatspace" as a noun meaning a place where bodies exist (as opposed to cyberspace, where bodies send words and images) is at least a decade old. I find it a little strange that blogger is flagging it as a misspelling in this comment.

Used as an adjective modifying institution, that may be new--though I doubt it.

I don't think free riding is the best way to think about the Chris Avenir facebook study group kerfuffle. Some things don't change when a group goes from 4 in meatspace to 100 in cyberspace. If the group is truly a "study" group, reviewing things from readings and class, talking about concepts that some members don't get, working through problems and homework, there's no cheating problem. Even if a few people do all the "talking" and most people just "listen." But if somebody says, "I did the homework; you can copy it," that's cheating.

Whether the "group" has two members or a thousand, whether they sit together at a table or log in from remote computers, what matters is whether you're just mindlessly copying someone else's work and/or passing it off as your own.

The problem here isn't free riding, in the sense of non-reciprocity. It's misrepresentation.

Small groups sometimes force everyone to contribute, to "pull their weight," but I suspect this is actually pretty rare. And, of course, in meatspace, contributions can be of various kinds. Joe does problem 3 and Jim buys the pizza and Jeff has an XBox they all play on after working through the homework.

The Science Goddess said...

Excellent comments---which now has me thinking about this. Can one cheat during learning? I think that most of us would agree that one can cheat on assessments (whether homework assignments or tests).

But assuming that a study group is used just for a collaborative way to more deeply engage with course content...is it possible to cheat?

Perhaps the university was confusing group learning with assessment.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

"The thing is, though, that 'everybody's doing it' doesn't make something the right thing to do."

Agreed, of course. We teach/model appropriate behavior, we don't (can't) enforce it.

On another note, if instruction and assessment are seamless in the classroom, we're left with learning.

I believe cheating, i.e., creating false achievement information, is a term we should reserve for "unauthentic performance" on summative assessments.

A student who copies homework may either be depriving themselves of a learning experience, or simply conserving time by avoiding the sweat of doing homework that has no value to them. (I'd never call it "collaboration," because there is no product input from the copier.)

Old saying: The proof (evidence of learning) is in the pudding (summative assessment).

Perhaps we should rethink the notion of summative assessment security. Out-of-the-classroom assessments will always be suspect. What does that leave?

Roger Sweeny said...

But assuming that a study group is used just for a collaborative way to more deeply engage with course content...is it possible to cheat

No, no, a thousand times no.

Perhaps the administration is worrying:

1. other things being equal, increasing the size of the group and removing the physical contact makes it more likely that no one will try to ensure that everyone contributes. So for some of the members, it is unlikely to be "collaborative."

2. Beyond a certain size, it is physically impossible for everyone to participate. How do you divide up ten problems among 146 people? How can you make a session manageable when 146 people have to type in something substantive?

Lots of people will be "active listeners" but there's no way to assure that a 146 person group will be collaborative.

Of course, there's no way for the administration to assure that a 2 person face to face group is collaborative. But that group leaves no public record.