In an environment of high academic achievement — and competition — some students view buying an extra set of class notes to be a harmless way to get ahead. Donald Nieman, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, however, offered a different opinion.
On Sept. 20, Nieman released a memo warning students that there could be negative consequences for buying and selling notes.
Nieman first wrote the policy in spring of 2010, when he learned about the website Notehall.
“Students can share notes,” he said. “It’s just the idea of them taking them and putting them up for sale that doesn’t seem right.”
Sites like Notehall allow students to upload and share, usually for profit, class materials such as notes and study guides. It’s meant to provide a wide forum for student discussion about courses and professors.
After hearing about the site, Nieman decided to investigate further, and found that the site was popular among students.
“It was started by students on the West Coast as a little entrepreneurial business, but it became successful and attracted the interest of the corporate world,” Nieman explained. “They’re ‘closed now’ while being adapted to a new business model. There’s a couple other places that do the same thing now.”
Notehall was founded in 2008 and appeared on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” which features entrepreneurs and possible investors, in 2009.
After the show, Chegg, a textbook rental site, got wind of the startup and made a generous offer. According to Nieman, this totaled $3.5 million. Chegg now encompasses Notehall and other sites providing resources for students.
Nieman states that the error in using sites like Notehall is two-pronged: students are cheating their professors and themselves.
“There was lots of concern from faculty about intellectual property,” Nieman said.
In the memo, Nieman explains where this concern comes from, writing, “…violations of copyright may be involved, especially where classroom materials are reproduced or copyrighted materials are extensive quoted.”
This issue has arisen in schools across the country. California State University, Sacramento gave graduate student Ryan Stevens a cease and desist letter after he founded Note Utopia, a similar website.
Marissa Armengau, a senior double-majoring in psychology and sociology, considered selling her notes through Notehall a few years ago, but decided against it.
“[It was] After the fact one of my friends told me that notehall was looked down upon by the university and could be considered academically dishonest,” Armengau wrote in an email. “I didn’t know that at the time.”
Nieman says discussing notes can certainly be beneficial and does not want that to stop, but the profit and mass distribution should.
Mike Grinberg, a junior majoring in politics, philosophy and law, said he thinks it should be the professor’s responsibility to explicitly state his or her qualms with redistribution of lecture notes.
“As long as the professor doesn’t express prejudice against it, than it should really be up to the students’ discretion,” Grinberg said.
Regardless of rules that are put into place to prevent these transactions, Grinberg said it would be difficult to enforce.
“There’s mutual benefits for both parties,” Grinberg said. “You just can’t restrict a free market like that.”
Faculty’s concern for the students themselves stems from a worry that simply buying notes will hinder them in the long run, as it encourages skipping class and avoiding effort.
“A student who manages to get good grades, by hook or by crook, is going to get found out sometime, whether it’s law school, grad school or on the job,” Nieman said. “The skills students develop from rigorous academic work pay off. That ‘Beowulf’ paper you’re writing will pay off.”