HISTORY AND PRACTICES
Online lecture notes companies were developing since at least 1998, typically on a local scale, and were on the internet since September 1999. Commercial notes companies typically sought to pay for notes of courses taught at colleges and universities and post them on their websites. At least one company charged a fee for the notes, while nearly all sites required the transmission of personal data. Another two companies tried --mostly unsuccessfully-- to solicit course materials from teachers. The number of companies posting course notes and/or other lecture materials at one point had grown to at least fifteen. Fortunately, in the meantime most all of the companies were no longer operative since the Fall of 2000.
Repeated requests to stop posting lecture notes by concerned professors were not followed up by the companies. Also, many teachers received harassing phone calls and emails from company representatives once we had revealed our concerns. At least one company acknowledged the existence of university policies prohibiting the sale of course notes but nonetheless continued to encourage students to sell notes.
When they went online, the notes companies managed to gather huge sums of money in financing. Versity.com, for example, had attracted $11.2 million during its first year (see article on financing). Among Versity's investors was Venrock Associates, the investing firm associated with the Rockefellers. StudentU.com had some $6 million invested in its operations.
Companies recruited notetakers by advertising very aggressively through emailing, websites, posting adds in the local college press, having students hand out pamphlets outside our classrooms, and visiting greek houses to market their products. The advertisers fulfilled their "educational" mission with supposedly funny commercials or dressed up as a wise guy.
Here are a few examples of freebies & ads collected by some of my students on the Purdue campus during the Fall of 1999. The advertisements typically concentrated on the fact that students can make money (example; another example); that the company would be on the students' side (example; ad example; example); that you can just as well skip class (example); and that the notes are perhaps not really honest (example) but freely available (example, from The Chronicle at Duke University). Companies also organized contests with lucrative prizes, such as trips to Europe.
Aggressiveness in marketing knew no bounds on the part of the notes companies. Late October 1999, for example, Versity.com stepped up its advertising campaign when coming under critique, a strategy that a company representative referred to as "guerrilla marketing" (see this article in The Kentucky Kernel). Invading education by advertising in the college media, Versity.com relied on the company FuturePages and its 'CampaignTracker' program to research and place ads in the college media. Similarly relying on aggressive advertising strategies, StudentU.com relied on Pierpont and Adsmart, in particular its "18-34 Division" designed to reach internet users between the ages of 18 and 34.
THE EDUCATION-COMMERCIAL COMPLEX...
In December 1999, Versity.com started a pilot program at the University of Michigan in an attempt to lure professors into cooperating with the company. The company promised faculty copyrights on the notes, the "right" to review the notes, and the payment of royalties through stock options... There was clearly a trend among commercial notes companies to seek to establish so-called partnerships with professors (see the Village Voice).
Throughout the Spring of 2000, the trend towards enforced partnership was confirmed. Versity.com even engaged in indirect and concealed ways to force partnerships with the college community. In January 2000, for instance, Versity began operations in conjunction with Lecture Notes, a part of Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) run by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU). SSE prides itself as "Stanford's entrepreneurial training ground." It is not a profit-oriented company, although "several SSE employees, such as project managers and directors, do receive salaries" (quotes from the SSE website). The irony of this partnership was that SSE Lecture Notes provides only professor-approved notes, although Versity worked without permission at many campuses across the country (see this article). Currently, SSE no longer operates in partnership with Versity.com...
Another trend in the changing world of commercial lecture notes businesses was an attempted diversification of products. In January 2000, for instance, the company Studentu.com announced that it had expanded its operations to include aside from notes, a host of other websites related to the student 'market' (see this article). The diversification and expansion of the notes businesses created the frightening vision of a huge commercial giant intruding into every aspect of our education...
But it was all not to be... In April 2000, CollegeClub.com bought out Versity.com (see this report from the Business Wire). CollegeClub.com (in which Sony took equity) managed to secure $55 million in financing, $40 million in series C convertible preferred stock through the Seligman Technology Group of New York, as well as $15 million from an investors group led by Convergence Partners of Menlo Park (see this article). However, the fickle nature of e-commerce in the meantime had its effects...
In April 2000, CollegeClub.com decided to go public (see this article), but in June it already withdrew an $85 million initial public offering and put itself up for sale (here is the full text of the initial public offering and end). The company CEO resigned and a number of employees were fired. The company then filed for bankruptcy (see this article) and Student Advantage agreed to buy the company for about $18.25 million. However, Versity.com is not part of the purchase and the business, it seems, is no more... As of late August 2000, the Versity site was no longer up but replaced by a link to CollegeClub. On October 19, 2000, a Federal Bankruptcy Court approved the sale of most assets of CollegeClub.com (but not Versity) to Student Advantage (see wire report).
THE OPPOSITION GROWS AND GROWS...
As teachers and students began to show their concerns, educational rights have been brought up against the online notes invasion. Most critically, online notes companies are critiqued because they intrude in the relationship between students and their teachers. Companies are neither qualified nor accountable and lack standards of quality control, which is possibly best demonstrated by Versity.com, which was founded by four 22-year-old college students-turned-dropouts, who wanted to have fun, it seems, playing with computers.
In the Fall of 1999, UCLA took the lead in the opposition by sending a cease-and-desist letter to notes companies (see article in Chronicle of Higher Education). Other universities followed the UCLA example and/or are discussing the issue or already have policies that regulate the sale of lecture notes. Among the universities with policies against the sale and/or unauthorized sale of lecture notes are presently: UCLA, UC-Berkeley (violation #7; see also Dean's statement on the matter), UC-Davis (see the University of California copyright policy), Yale University, Princeton University, Harvard University (see section on tutoring), Iowa State University (section 4.2.20), Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, Rice University, and University of Nebraska.
Among the most helpful policies are those based on academic honesty and commercial relations with students and faculty because they tend to ban the notes companies altogether. Such policies exist at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. At Yale University (article), the Dean condemned the notes companies as "a deeply troubling commercial intrusion into our classrooms, an improper exploitation of the intellectual property of the instructors, and in many instances a misrepresentation of courses" (online version of the Dean's statement).
Strikingly, the negative response from the student community has been overwhelming! This is especially clear from the many critical reports in the college press. See, for example, these editorials and letters in the Oracle, the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the Echo Online, the Daily Iowan, the Brown Daily Herald, the Columbia Daily Spectator, the Minnesota Daily, the Yale Daily News, the UCLA Daily Bruin, and the Cavalier Daily and these telling cartoons from the Cavalier and at USC's Daily Trojan. Also, surveys show strong opposition against the notes businesses (e.g., survey).
The aggressiveness and unashamed nature of the commercial notes companies left little options for students and teachers: formal policies needed to be established. The legal response, fortunately, has been swift and certain. In February 2000, an Alameda County Superior Court judge issued a permanent injunction barring the note-taking service R&R Corporation (a hard-copy notes distributor) from operating on any University of California campus. In response, several professors said they would like to see similar action taken against online note-taking companies.
A bill to ban the unauthorized distribution of lecture notes passed in the legislative bodies of the State of California and, on September 22, 2000, Governor Davis signed the bill into law, thus amending the State Education Code to prohibit unauthorized posting of class lecture notes on commercial websites (see article). The law becomes effective January 1, 2001. The bill was entered by assembly member Gloria Romero and others in order to accord "exclusive ownership" to faculty members for their "presentation[s]... in a classroom, laboratory, library, studio, or any other place of instruction." Here you can read the entire history of this bill, the text of the law as chaptered, its amendments, and the assembly and senate discussion: AB 1773 (see also the Governor's press release and the students' positive reaction!). Other state legislatures are now looking into the matter to similarly adjust their respective states' laws (see article).
A FRESH START FOR EDUCATION!
Since the fall of 2000, most commercial lecture notes companies have gone out of business. Though some didn't give up easily... At least one company tried to revive its practices as late as October 2000: then, Study24-7.com hired the services of AlterbrainUSA, an online consulting company. But the financially dire straits of most notes businesses cannot be hidden anymore. In November 2000, student-notetakers for StudentU.com reported that they had not received payment for their 'services'.
As a report in the Wall Street Journal recently argued, the demise of the lecture notes businesses was the combined result of the forceful educational campaigns that students and teachers mounted against these practices and the fickle nature of e-commerce (see article). More than 117 e-businesses went bust between September 1999 and October 2000, according to the Boston Consulting Group. And about 51,000 dot-com employees were fired since December 1999, according to The Industry Standard.
Versity.com: From the Beginning of the End until the End!
The demise of Versity.com, which was the most aggressive and scrupulous of all notes businesses, is very telling in this respect. As an informative report in USA Today recently (February 7, 2001) recounted, the story of the e-commerce downfall is simply pathetic (all quotes below from the article by Stephanie Armour).
When the company got started, Versity.com could rely on millions of dollars to infiltrate our colleges and universities, but soon there was nothing left. One of the founders of Versity, Jeff Lawson, once an apparent playful person (picture), now "has nothing but time [and] spends his days in Southampton, N.Y., at a vacant beach house owned by one of his former investors, watching the wind-tossed waves and mulling what to do next."
When Versity was founded, not even the sky was the limit for the online enthusiasts. "Daniel Brecher, a senior project manager at Versity.com, was so sure about his financial future that he splurged on a silver 1958 Porsche Speedster convertible, which he adorned with a vanity plate reading VERSITY."
But after Versity was bought up by CollegeClub.com, which itself was facing financial trouble, the fairy tale was soon over. "Some Versity.com workers who had relocated to San Diego were laid off just days after moving. Investors who poured millions of dollars into the company got nothing, and some former employees still are out of work or paying off credit card debt they ran up before they were fired... As newly arrived Versity.com employees set up their desks, CollegeClub.com executives vanished into marathon budget meetings. Apprehension began spreading like a virulent flu."
"Former Versity.com employees describe what happened next as a firing frenzy. By mid-May, they say more than 90 workers had been laid off with more job cuts to come. They say some of the fired employees had just arrived, with families in tow and belongings in storage... By August, about 5 months after the market began its swoon, virtually all of Versity.com employees had left or been laid off."
And now? "Lawson and Lappin, two of the four initial founders, have spent more than a month since Versity.com's demise in their former investor's vacation home. In an isolated place amid the stubble of weeds poking through sand, the former Internet executives can stare at the Atlantic from the back door and ponder what to do next."
Finally, a word of caution...
As the online notes companies one by one have gone out of business, let us remain alert to the wider problems. For one, local notes businesses are still in operation and, in the wake of the dot.com debacle, sem to have gained new gound. As dedicated students and teachers, we must fight any and all unwanted infiltrations of our education! Also, we should take a broad perspective to the commercialization of education and remain aware of its many different manifestation.
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