Take This Down

Unauthorized Lecture-Note Sites Draw Profs’ Fire

On a recent afternoon at the University of Houston, April Phillips rushes from her genetics class to her off-campus apartment. Settling in front of her computer, she begins to transcribe the notes from the lecture. This is not a memory technique or a frantic attempt to finish homework before happy hour. This is her job.

StudentU.com pays Phillips $300 a semester to organize and post on the Web her interpretation of the professor's lecture. Such part-time gigs have administrators threatening students with expulsion and serving the online note companies with cease and desist orders.

The '90s saw radical changes in the financing of American universities; now, many administrators and professors see the online note industry as the latest battle in the war for educational integrity. Top colleges are challenging note sites by raising issues of copyright infringement, authorship, honor codes, and the pairing of IPOs and academia.

illustration: A. Skwish

But as college tuition doubled in the last 10 years—while financial aid and work study were decimated, and tenured-professor hiring was slashed—administrators allowed corporations to sponsor business, science, and technology departments, athletics, food service, bookstores, and housing. College-age Net capitalists have learned from their elders—and are making campus life big online business.

More than 10 online companies now offer free notes for thousands of lectures in over 100 universities and colleges. These ventures, the largest being StudentU.com and Versity.com, recruit "campus team leaders" or "campus operations managers" from the student body, who then locate notetakers and market the service on campus. Trained by the company, notetakers have an average GPA of 3.0, must post lecture notes within 24 hours (and arrange for a substitute scribe if they fall ill), and relinquish any claims to copyright, all for a paycheck. (StudentU will pay $400 per semester in spring 2000; Versity pays a per-lecture fee of $8 to $12 an hour.)

"It beats waiting tables or bartending on the weekends. It's not a lot of money, but it helped me live in a nicer apartment. I'm earning money while I study and am helping my classmates," says Phillips, who earned $600 last semester.

Though such e-commerce supplements the income of thousands of college graduates, who carry an average student loan debt of $13,000, many are putting their diplomas at risk while investors with an eye on the Dow pump millions into these online services. Harvard, UC Berkeley, and UCLA have responded by reminding students that note-taking for profit directly violates the universities' honor codes. Oran Wolf, president of StudyFree (which runs StudentU.com), admits that some students did quit their jobs when informed that such violations could result in expulsion.

Last fall, UCLA and Berkeley sent cease and desist orders to Versity (the latter also sent them to StudentU), claiming its activities were an unauthorized commercial use of the universities' names and facilities. Some cynics would argue that the key word is "unauthorized": Many schools have already been lured by corporate dollars. With e-commerce ventures being valued in the billions, and universities under increasing pressure to raise capital and stay competitive, the note sites' supporters are questioning the academy's sudden high-mindedness.

Since 1993, corporate donations to higher education have consistently increased while corporate names have been slapped on everything from football stadiums (McDonald's Alexander Memorial Coliseum at Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola's six-year contract with the University of Texas for exclusive rights to display ads in athletic facilities) to endowed chairs (the Taco Bell Chair in Information Technology Management at UC Irvine and a professorship at Washington State University for developing courses in chain-restaurant management). In 1998, according to the Council for Aid to Education, corporate America's contributions to colleges and universities was an estimated $3.25 billion—18 percent of total contributions. Duke University topped the list, raking in $143 million—roughly 43 percent of the total amount given.

Moreover, these universities have joined in the Web's revenue frenzy by allowing third-party vendors to create Web sites that give students access to grades, transcripts, sports news, and merchandise. Studentadvantage.com—encompassing getgrades.com, uwire.com, and fansonly.com—has formed business relationships with more than 60 schools and has generated more than $1 million in revenue for its "university partners" over the last four years. Jeff Cravens, vice president of fansonly.com, expects that figure to double in 2000.

Following years of corporate contributions and this recent acceptance of third-party online vendors by universities, resistance to online note-taking services seems disingenuous.

Mathieu Deflem, assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University, is one of the most outspoken critics of the services. Objecting to what he sees as the companies' intrusion in the learning process and their interference in the student-teacher relationship, Deflem does not accept their argument that posting notes is merely an exercise of free speech.

The issue of whether a lecture is copyrighted material, or simply the dissemination of widely available knowledge, remains unsettled. Note sites claim that they are posting only an interpretation of a lecture, and define plagiarism, which is prohibited, as the copying of a professor's syllabus and written outlines.

Critics like Deflem claim that notes should not be allowed to represent their lectures—they are not only unauthorized, but often inaccurate.

"I didn't spend years studying and getting my degrees to have my work 'interpreted' by an 18-year-old," says Deflem.

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