The Educational Cost of Free Lecture Notes on the Internet

Mathieu Deflem
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This online paper was originally placed on the internet on October 2, 1999.
Final revisions were made on August 1, 2000.

Shorter versions of this paper were published in AFT On Campus (April 2000), Footnotes (April 2000), and The Stanford Review (October 1999).

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2000. " The Educational Cost of Free Lecture Notes on the Internet." Unpublished paper. Available via

This paper is part of my website campaign, Free Education Now!

The advent of the internet may count among the most remarkable developments in the recent wave of communications technologies. Whatever it can and will be, it surely is not just another fad. The new opportunities presented by the internet have also been used for and by sociologists and scholars everywhere.

Many among us use the internet in ways that benefit our dual objectives of research and teaching. But with every change come dangers, big and small. I want to draw attention to the arrival of one specific new phenomenon on the internet which, I feel, poses a serious threat to our profession, especially in terms of our mission as educators. I refer to the appearance of private on-line companies that post lecture notes of courses taught at colleges and universities on the internet.

Many different businesses have started to use the internet to offer goods and services explicitly related to the needs and wants of colleges and universities. Among the internet sites exploring the academic market are: information sites to guide prospective students and their parents in choosing the right school; on-line companies that sell textbooks, office equipment, furniture and just about every other little thing students may be interested in; distance-learning programs that provide courses on-line; sites with instructional tools and learning aids, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias; and so-called ‘on-line campuses’ or ‘virtual colleges’ that offer degrees in a variety of subject matters.

No doubt some of these developments are beneficial, others problematic. With that in mind, my comments here specifically pertain to commercial online companies that distribute lecture notes for courses taught at colleges and universities. In this case, I feel that there are serious dangers involved with respect to our educational objectives to provide a qualified and responsible teaching of tomorrow’s generation.


Online lecture notes companies are a very recent phenomenon. I am presently aware of at least fifteen such companies offering notes for many different colleges or universities across the country. Many more notes companies operate locally (and not always online). Also, some of the national companies are not actually up and running yet and at present merely list the services they hope to have available in the near future. At least five companies have already begun to distribute notes across campuses. The notes are typically offered to students free of charge, although site registration may be required to obtain them. At least one company charges a fee for the notes. The latest trend is for companies to try and seek cooperation from teachers, but most often, however, the notes are not authorized. (See the Anti-Education List).

The companies are not affiliated with a university or college, but privately owned businesses that have attracted sufficient money to start up the service. One company reported it had attracted $11.2 million in financing from a group of investors. Another company had invested some $6 million. The online companies work on a for-profit basis through revenues derived from website advertising. The course notes are typically presented as a student’s interpretation of the lectures and are bought from students enrolled in the courses, although there have been instances reported where notes were gathered by students not enrolled and/or by company employees. Companies agressively recruit notetakers, touting attractive salaries (up to $400 per semester) and job titles (“Class Research Coordinator,” “Campus Operations Manager,” “Director”).


Online notes companies raise concerns from the viewpoint of the potential effects they may have for our teaching and in term of the problems created by the very fact that on-line course notes are offered. In terms of anticipated effects, it may be too soon to tell what the impact will be. It is even uncertain if and to what extent the businesses will be successful in actually providing course notes. The companies are still looking to hire notetakers and are presently distributing notes for relatively few courses in selected universities.

Also questionable is the economic feasibility of the companies because the money they receive from advertisements may be insufficient to maintain the business. Still, it is unlikely that the companies will have no effect at all, if only because they are advertising rather aggressively and appear to be attractive to at least a section of the student population. Notes companies have been placing adds in the local college press and on their websites and have spread pamphlets and all kinds of ads on our nation’s campuses (here are some examples: example; example; example; example; example).

Potentially the negative effects of on-line note providers are tremendous. Students could be led to think that they no longer have to attend class because and when lecture notes are available on-line. The companies that provide the notes anticipated the critique and are very careful in mentioning that the notes are not to be used as a substitute for attending class. The disclaimer, of course, is no guarantee at all that that is not precisely what will happen. Some instructors have already reported that they noticed that class attendance had dropped after notes had been made available.

More generally, the availability of online notes could mean that students will start to develop a very short-sighted and narrow perspective of education that views of teaching as merely getting the notes to pass the exam and make the grade, thereby accelerating a trend that for various reasons teachers have regrettably already seen taking place. While notes are a necessary tool for students to gather their thoughts and prepare for the exams, they are not the objective of the teaching experience.

In terms of effects, I should also add that some teachers have stated that online notes companies may actually be beneficial and that educators should welcome the service. This reaction is perhaps even more astonishing than the educational pretensions the online companies themselves have forwarded, for teacher reliance on the availability of such notes implicitly relinquishes their educational duties. If online notes companies are silently approved or actively endorsed, a potential cost for students is that teachers could teach more materials, reduce office hours, or no longer allow time for questions in class, all because they could refer to the availability of notes online. And if it would be a good idea to have notes available on the internet, it should be the instructors themselves who organize the service and its conditions. Such could be very easily done, because institutions of higher learning have excellent computer facilities, powerful servers, and qualified personnel. In fact, many teachers (myself included) already use the internet for their classes, including various forms of online information, which, importantly, contain summaries or overviews of lecture notes that are carefully prepared by the instructors.


Irrespective of their impact, commercial notes companies pose many problems in principle that relate to a loss of autonomy and responsibility on the part of the teaching community and a lack of quality standards and accountability on the part of the companies that distribute notes.

The most serious drawback of commercial notes companies in my view is the loss of autonomy and responsibility that it involves relative to our position and tasks as educators. Online notes companies do not ask instructors for permission, but, at the same time, the companies explicitly post and advertise the notes with reference to the courses and the universities where they are taught, identified by the university’s course title, section number, and/or professor’s name. This form of intrusion goes completely against our position as educators for which we claim sovereign rights and obligations. As appointed instructors, we determine the subject matter, the reading list, the assignments, the mode of class participation, and so on. But with online provided notes, we lose control over what is presented as an educational tool related to our courses.

No matter the effects, such a service constitutes an interference in our work. In fact, not only do commercial notes companies not ask for instructors’ permission to post lecture notes, they do not cancel the service when the instructor so requests. Over the past weeks, for instance, I repeatedly asked one of the companies to remove references to the course I teach from their website, arguing explicitly that I deemed it detrimental to my teaching. But my request was not complied with and instead I was contacted through email and phone with the suggestion that the company representatives wished to work out a “mutually agreeable” solution with me. The situation is readily ridiculous, of course, because there would be no problem requiring any solution were it not for the fact that the companies had introduced it in the first place. More importantly, I was affronted that somebody —anybody— would find it appropriate to work out something with me which I consider to be my sole prerogative and responsibility as a professional teacher.

In any and all issues of our teaching, I believe, we not only need not but actually should not take anybody's orders. As responsible and qualified teachers, we accept no authority but our own judgment and the advice of ours peers and the feedback from our students. There is intrinsic value to our teaching and the student-teacher interaction without third-party interference.

From the students’ standpoint, the loss of autonomy for instructors implies a loss of responsibility. With online companies providing notes, a situation is created whereby teachers are not in command of a service that is nonetheless advertised as an element of the student’s learning process. If we tolerate the existence of commercial notes, students may --right or wrong-- accept our silence to be an implicit approval. The aggressive and seemingly for-the-benefit-of-education manner in which the companies present their services may indeed lead students to think that the existence of the service (if not the notes themselves) is approved by the instructors or even sanctioned by universities.

Next, on the part of the companies, there is an absence of quality standards and accountability in providing course notes. There are no requirements or procedures governing who provides online notes. Anybody who knows how to set up a website company can offer the service, which is probably best demonstrated by a Michigan-based company which according to news accounts has been set up by three college drop-outs. While notes providers typically present themselves as being concerned about offering useful learning tools, company providers are not trained in educational and academic matters and there is no authority of supervision enforcing guidelines.

There is with these companies, in other words, nothing equivalent to the hard work qualified teachers invested in graduate school, acquiring degrees from accredited institutes, and the work we daily spend to maintain our acquired expertise. Neither is there an equivalent to the university and college rules that regulate our educational duties and the relationships with our students. Instead of all the safeguards designed to establish and protect the integrity and standards of our profession, on-line notes companies merely benefit from a parasitic freedom of opportunity on the internet.

Finally, commercial notes companies also lack accountability in providing educational materials with any guarantees of quality. In fact, the company websites not only contain legalistic claims that all the materials presented are copyrighted and may not be used in lawsuits brought against them, they are also careful to detail a user agreement that includes the disclaimer that no guarantees are made on the quality of the notes and that the company cannot be held liable for mistakes in the notes. At the same time, companies argue to apply quality controls, but the basis thereof is left unspecified. In the disclaimer, also, the notes are presented as merely one more complementary tool of education. The philosophy seems to be that more information is better and cannot hurt. But freedom of information and expression do not contribute to teaching in such an unqualified sense, for the classroom is not a forum of participatory democracy but a purposively designed setting with a particular function and division of labor. The key is not more information but information that is appropriate relative to course objectives.

Explicit disclaimers on the quality of a service presented as educational are in complete contradiction with a responsible understanding of education. Students cannot only ask questions and clarification from their instructors, they are encouraged to do so. The more we are questioned by our students, the more we realize to be doing our job. We encourage participation from the student in a quest for valuable information that is accurate in contents and appropriate in form. And while the professor is responsible for the accuracy of the contents, experience tells us that the form of course notes is very individual, varying from one student to the next. Often, indeed, students receive no help from copies of another student’s notes, at least not without additional clarifications.


Invoking problems that indeed face education today (e.g., large class sizes), online notes companies pretend to offer an alternative, relying on buzzwords related to innovative, revolutionary, and new ways of using the internet. But referring to a legitimate concern does not mean that we must accept what is offered as solution. Intruding into education, on-line notes companies invade the student-teacher relationship and show a lack of decency and respect towards the integrity of the teacher as well as the student in establishing a relationship of trust. The companies take advantage of problems and a certain climate in our education today but they offer no remedies. Fortunately, many teachers and students know better. (See Education News).

At the heart of the problem, I believe, is a free-marketization of our educational system. The problem is not the internet and not the free market, but a profit-oriented and technologically-based invasion of our profession that applies market principles in an area of society governed by fundamentally different standard. Education, indeed, is not a business oriented at maximizing profit but a commitment intent on shaping informed and responsible citizens. Teaching is not a free-entrepreneurial delivery of product. What is appropriate for soft drinks is not alright for our lectures. As teachers we do not deal in commodity; we do not teach on a for-profit basis to the highest-bidding student; we do not advertise and do not sell our classes on the basis of supply-and-demand criteria.


There are different ways to tackle this matter.

First, we need to be informed about the existence and practices of these companies. Next, we can foster awareness by reaching out to educators and students about the issues we feel are involved. And, finally, we can plan and devise strategies of intervention. Among the various options that are available to us, I personally feel that a university policy based on academic honesty is the most feasible and effective strategy.

At present, several universities already have policies that prohibit the sale of lecture notes altogether or that prohibit the sale of notes without the instructor's permission (based on academic honesty requirements or intellectual property rights). 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), Yale University, Princeton University, Harvard University (see section on tutoring), Iowa State University (section 4.2.20), Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, and Rice University. In March 2000, Boston University also sent cease-and-desist to notes companies. And in the same month, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania were also developing appropriate policies. Some university policies are not entirely successful, because they allow notes companies to invade as long as they receive instructors' permission. Such a policy exist, for instance, at the University of Vermont and at Kansas State University.

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, for instance, where notes companies have been successfully banned (article), students cannot engage in commercial ventures without the Dean's approval. Wisely, the Dean at Yale 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". Recognizing that the internet can provide "extraordinarily positive new opportunities for teaching and learning," the Dean continued that commercial notes companies abuse the technology in ways that are wrongful, misleading and academically unsound" (online version of the Dean's statement) (See Education Interventions).

University actions can also be legally backed. A bill to ban the ununauthorized distribution of lecture notes, for instance, is currently being discussed in the legislative bodies of the State of California. Entered by assembly member Gloria Romero, the bill seeks to accord "exclusive ownership" to faculty members for their "presentation[s]... in a classroom, laboratory, library, studio, or any other place of instruction." Passage of the bill would ban all unauthorized recordings and distributions of lectures, including the sale of class notes for monetary gain (read the history of this bill, its amendments, and the assembly and senate discussion: AB 1773).

Of course, in the debate on notes companies, legal issues are never primary, for irrespective of the legal situation there are strong educational concerns that have to do with our rights and duties as instructors and students. In fact, the legality or illegality of online lecture notes is not an argument in this debate. The law never is. Instead, however, we can explore the legal aspcts of copyrighting, confidence and publicity as useful instruments to protect our right. That is also the intent of my legal paper on teaching and the status of lecture notes.

I invite students and teachers to join the discussion on this issue.

More info on the Free Education Now pages.

See other writings on teaching and academic issues.