University4Sale-dot-com: The Educational Cost of Free Notes on the Internet

Mathieu Deflem
www.mathieudeflem.net

Published in Footnotes, ASA newsletter 28(4):6-7 (April 2000).

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2000. "University4Sale-dot-com: The Educational Cost of Free Notes on the Internet." Footnotes, 28(4):6-7.



The internet is arguably the most remarkable development in a recent wave of communications technologies. Websites have also been set up on academic matters, such as sites with rankings of graduate programs and so-called “virtual colleges” that offer online classes. No doubt, some of these developments are beneficial, others problematic. With that in mind, my comments here pertain to one specific phenomenon on the internet which, I feel, poses a serious threat to our profession, especially in our mission as educators. I refer to private companies that post unauthorized lecture notes of courses taught at colleges and universities on the internet.

Online notes companies are a relatively recent but rapidly expanding phenomenon. Since they first emerged in the Fall of 1999, at least 13 such companies currently exist. The companies are privately owned and typically distribute notes for free, acquiring revenue from website advertising. At least one company charges a fee for its notes. Companies advertise aggressively, particularly in the college press, touting attractive salaries (up to $400 per semester) and job titles (“Class Research Coordinator,” “Campus Operations Manager”). In recent months, notes companies have managed to attract millions of dollars in financing. For instance, Versity.com has received $11.2 million from multiple investors, while StudentU.com operates on some $6 million. Also, several notes companies have recently been expanding and diversifying by acquiring other college-related enterprises, such as book-selling sites, college news sites, and much more. StudentU.com, for example, bought out “28th Street,” the publisher of a college magazine.

Website companies posting lecture notes raise concerns in terms of their anticipated effects and the problems they create in principle. Among the negative effects could be a decline in class attendance. The companies carefully mention that the notes are not to be used as a substitute for attending class, but the disclaimer is, of course, no guarantee that it will not happen. More generally, the availability of online notes could mean that students will develop a short-sighted and narrow perspective of education as getting notes to pass exams and make the grade.
However, irrespective of their potential impact, online notes companies pose many problems in principle. The most serious drawback is the loss of autonomy and responsibility in our position as educators. The notes are posted with explicit reference to college and university courses, identified by title, section, and/or instructor. But instructors are not asked for permission and the service is not cancelled upon the instructor’s request. This is entirely antithetical to our educational mission. In our teaching we not only need not, but also should not accept any authority but our own judgment and the advice of our peers and feedback from our students.

Some teachers have stated that online notes may be beneficial to our teaching. This reaction is even more astonishing than the companies’ pretensions, because teachers approving online notes implicitly relinquish their educational duties. If notes on the internet are a good idea, instructors should organize the service themselves. Many teachers (myself included) already use the internet for their teaching in many ways which, importantly, we ourselves determined. Not speaking out against online notes implies a loss of responsibility in that students may—right or wrong—accept our silence to be an implicit approval. The aggressive manner in which the companies present themselves might indeed make students think that the service is approved by instructors and their institutions.

Furthermore, on the part of the companies there is an absence of quality standards and accountability. There are no procedures governing who provides online notes, which is probably best demonstrated by Versity.com, the Michigan-based company which has been set up by four college drop-outs. Company employees are not trained in educational matters and there is no authority of supervision. There is nothing equivalent to the degrees qualified teachers acquired from accredited institutes and our various efforts to maintain our expertise. Neither is there an equivalent to the institutional rules that guide our educational duties. Instead of the safeguards to protect the standards of our profession, online notes companies benefit from a parasitic freedom of opportunity on the internet. Relatedly, online notes companies lack accountability in providing educational materials. The company websites specify a disclaimer that the notes are a student’s interpretation, that no guarantees are made on their quality, and that the company cannot be held liable for mistakes. Such disclaimers on the quality of a service presented as educational are in complete contradiction with a responsible understanding of education. Students cannot only ask their teachers questions, as educators we actively stimulate student participation.

At the heart of this problem, I believe, is a free-marketization of our educational system. The problem is not the internet and not free enterprise, but a profit-oriented and technologically-based invasion of market principles in an area of society governed by fundamentally different standards. Education is not a business oriented at maximizing profit but a commitment aimed at shaping informed citizens. As teachers we do not deal in commodity and we do not sell our courses on the basis of supply-and-demand criteria. What is appropriate for soft drinks is not alright for our lectures.

Fortunately, over the past months several universities have reacted against the menace of notes companies and have developed and implemented appropriate policies (based on intellectual property rights or academic honesty regulations). Representatives of UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other universities have been successful in having notes for their institutions removed by sending cease-and-desist letters to the notes companies. Still, with a phenomenon as novel as the commercial distribution of online notes, many university administrators, teachers and students are still unaware of ongoing developments. I invite sociologists and other scholars to join in on the discussion. In an effort to help in the educational response against notes companies, I have since September of last year been organizing a website campaign, “Free Education Now!,” which provides detailed information about many aspects of commercial notes companies.

See: Longer online version.