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.

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.

But the services defend their products as study aids, akin to the Cliffs Notes used by previous generations. "Students pay big money for their classes," says notetaker Phillips. "They are not cutting because we post notes. But they may be getting more involved in discussions or need to clarify a concept they didn't get."

Phillips says it's "stupid" for users to assume notes can replace the professor. "People borrow and share notes all the time, and any student with a care about grades knows someone else's notes cannot replace sitting in class."

Critics maintain that the companies' legal "outs"—small-type disclaimers which state that they are not affiliated with or licensed by any of the colleges they cover—mean that notes meet no standard of accuracy. On a more basic level, many opponents say using the services is cheating.

"School is supposed to be hard, you're supposed to work hard to get a degree," says Deflem. "Floating in this bubble of e-commerce, these companies are relying on a particular culture of getting it easy."

Frustrated, Deflem claims to have made repeated efforts to have mention of his classes removed from Versity.com. (The company was looking for someone to write notes on his lectures.) After publicly criticizing the company, he claims, he was first denied access to the site, then offered the chance to participate in a contest to win a promotional television. When Versity finally contacted him, it was not to let him know the ads had come down, but to say they were willing to work with him.

Versity CEO and chairman Chuck Berman disputes Deflem's claims, saying, "We don't have a mechanism for blocking his access to the site."

In response to criticism of the current services, Versity is working on a "permission-based" pilot program at the University of Michigan, in which professors have jurisdiction over the notetakers' material. The company, according to spokesperson Janet Cardinell, is changing its mission. Instead of simply helping students with notes, it "will recognize the value of the professor and the student."

"The critical issue is that you aren't going to create a high-quality product without the cooperation of faculty," says Berman.

More important, when professors agree to participate in this program, copyright to the lecture notes will "transfer" back to them. Prior to professor involvement, Versity claimed ownership to the students' notes. For signing on, Versity is also considering royalties in the form of stock options.

"They kick you in the balls and then ask if they can help you," says Deflem of the catch-22 that the note services offer professors.

The controversy is just starting, as note sites continue to pop up at the local and national levels. Competition is stiff, and the demand for notes—and work within the note-taking industry—is increasing. Proponents brush off the objections. "They tell you as a freshman that you can't have a job and maintain a full course load," says Phillips. "With the note services, you can study and make money. Why do universities have a problem with that?"


site lines

A selection of online lecture notes


FROM VERSITY.COM:
San Francisco State University
Asian American Studies 370.01

Quiz on Monday!

Sino-Vietnamese (Chinese Vietnamese)
These people had a different culture, language, experience, and historical perspective than Vietnamese people.

Chinese Diaspora (1800's)
This was a time where everything was corrupt.
These people could only get away from Canton by boat.

Columbia University
Mass Media in American Government/Politics

Two ideas came about among the media at the turn of the century:
1. Modern man didn't have time to go through bunches of information.
2. The idea of the "Invisible Hand" providing for free marketplace of ideas did not work anymore.

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Philosophy 020

Argument of Diversity:
Disagreement—can turn out to be disagreement about factual issues.
Ex. Many want to follow will of God; much disagreement about that will and what it is.
Then, we did a review on Wednesdays and Fridays: Subjectivism—refer to those notes.

Ball State University—Psychology 100
Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Dr. Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is unique in that it falls off very very steeply. The reason for this is that what was remembered was nonsense syllables that were devoid of meaning in his language. He found that nonsense is very difficult to remember. The other reason that the forgetting was so rapid is that he studied thousands of these nonsense syllables and he studied too many.

FROM STUDENTU.COM:
West Virginia University
History/Western Civilization Antiquity-1600

Professor covered syllabus and sitting arrangements. Be sure not to sit in that far back corner. Come to class Thursday because she will cover 3000 years of history.

FROM STUDY24-7.COM:
Boston University
English: Hamlet—Act II, III (Part V)

ACT III
SCENE 1
The 1st soliloquoy [sic]—can't commit suicide *damned
The 2nd soliloquoy—maybe it was the Devil to damn me
The 3rd soliloquoy—To be or not to be (kill myself?)
Constantly mentioning conscience
How does this and "enterprises of great pitch & moment" fit into suicide?
Enterprises = momentous acions [sic].


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