Students’ piracy practices- accessing learning resources

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In this post A/Prof Laura Czerniewicz, SP10.3 lead researcher, shares her recently published research paper which discusses how students access learning resources, and in particular their piracy practices. This research adds to our growing understanding of and contextualises why the take up of OER by students is not as widespread as one would imagine. This post is reblogged from Laura’s blog.

In my previous life I worked in educational publishing- it was clear then what the job was – to produce and distribute educational resources as a contribution to student learning, and many dedicated educators did so. The business model was that the publisher added value (and the publishing process does add value) , owned the copyright and sold the product. In the last decade I have been actively involved in open education and open scholarship including open educational resources (OER). This still involves adding value through publishing processes, but no longer requires authors to sign over copyright to publishers but rather to provide permissions to users (including publishers who have developed different publishing models).

From the point of view of the student, open educational resources makes more sense, certainly financially. Yet the research shows that the take up of OERs by students is not as widespread as one would imagine.

Why not? Part of the reason, it seems, is that most students, in fact most people, regard the Internet as a space where free content simply exists to be found, and do not differentiate between legally available open content (OERs) and freely available content, which is not legally available, but is technically and socially available.

With this in mind, we undertook research to find out how students access learning resources, and particularly what their piracy practices are. How do they access resources (particularly books), do they consider copyright and what do they think about it, how do they make sense of what they do? The investigation formed part of a bigger study; of which part was a focus on first year students, because they are the most likely still to be using textbooks. Through a survey answered by 1001 students and six focus groups with students in three professional disciples, we gained a sense of students’ piracy practices….

  • The findings from the survey show that students are accessing learning resources in both print and digital forms (i.e. not either /or) and that they are accessing them both legally and illegally without necessarily knowing the difference. They gave contradictory answers when asked what percentage of their resources were downloaded legally and illegally respectively, and notably only a fifth of students said that all their resources were legally obtained. The comment “we all pirate” was made several times.
  • It also emerged that accessing learning resources through a variety of sites requires a certain measure of expertise, that this knowledge was admired, and was unevenly spread. In this sense, the notion of a notion of a homogenous student body, the natural “digital native” is challenged.
  • Student attitudes to their actions includes amused distancing, through shifting responsibility to others or to the technology itself, as in, for example, giving agency to software – “it’s Google’s fault
  • The face of piracy is generally one of matter-of- fact pragmatism. Some take a principled stance – – ‘Is it unethical to want to be educated or is it unethical to charge so much?’…- but believe that they are doing the right thing – ‘… in my head, even though in my head I know it’s wrong, it’s just a technical thing. Substantively speaking, it’s the right thing to do…’ and “I am not worried about the consequences of illegal downloading. Worried about graduating”.
  • A distinction is made between books and other media forms (particularly music and films), and the educational aspect is considered central -different: “It’s about access to education: It is huge! It’s of the future of our country”.
  • An important distinction is also made between plagiarism and copyright, with plagiarism considered unethical and risky, while copyright is less of an issue -: “Otherwise, copyright, it does not even seem like an issue anymore….I copy everything…..But it almost seems like it isn’t copyrighted, it almost seems like it’s free for everyone.“
  • A glimmer of an alternative perspective exists in the acknowledgement by some students of the existence and value of open content

The student voices are articulate, these quotes are a just taster. The paper used a practices approach for the research cognisant of the need to decentre the students as individuals, rather to explore and dissect their practices in context. Through the literature review and the findings, it is clear that there is a grey zone in the access of learning resources that is simply part of normality in a new communication and information order.

The full paper, ‘Student Practices in Copyright Culture: Accessing Learning Resources’ is in print in Learning Media and Technology, and will be available at

A post print of the paper is available at

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