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Colleges take note of paid note-takers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BURLINGTON, Vt. - When Kenneth Digney-Peer launched a note-taking business at the University of Vermont this school year, he provided fellow students with summaries of course lectures for a fee - and stepped into a controversy over intellectual property rights that has embroiled college campuses from California to Connecticut.

Within weeks of the start of Digney-Peer's GotNotes, the Faculty Senate at UVMbanned commercial note-takers from classes unless they had the permission of the course instructor.

Within months, Digney-Peer's company was bought by a national outfit that negotiated with 60 UVM professors to sit in on their classes. The firm, Versity.com, offered the class notes for free on the World Wide Web.

And Digney-Peer, 24, found himself working as a regional manager for the San Francisco-based company and driving a new white BMW.

"I went from a college kid eating Top Rahman [noodles] to eating out in Italian restaurants every night," said Digney-Peer, who now lives at a fashionable address in Syracuse, N.Y. "I'm having the time of my life now."

"We have a win-win situation," added Jean Richardson, president of UVM's faculty senate, who led the fight to protect professors' rights in the note-taking venture.

"The notes are available to those students who want them in the courses where the professors are allowing it to take place."

Not every academic institution has been so accommodating. The University of California at Berkeley and its sister campus, UCLA, sent letters to commercial note-taking companies to "cease and desist" on their campuses.

Ethical, academic concerns

The University of Maryland-College Park notified some firms of its ethical concerns about making money from a professor's work.

At Harvard and Yale, officials reminded students that selling lecture notes violates university regulations.

The concerns range from infringement of intellectual property rights to the integrity of the educational process. Online notes encourage students to skip classes, critics say.

"The Web is a wonderful teaching tool, but it should only be done with the approval and direction of the faculty instructor," said John Sandbrook, an assistant provost at UCLA's College of Letters and Science.

"To have a company come in try to make a fast buck is a slap at higher education. They are not doing it to help the students. They are doing it to generate [advertising] revenue."

In California, a bill in the state legislature would ban the use of lecture material from a state or community college without the instructor's permission.

The business of providing college class notes to students -- for a fee or for free -- is a decades-old practice. Fraternities and sororities often keep file cabinets of class notes, old quizzes and past exams for their new members.

In medical and law schools, lecture notes from past years are available to new students.

Sharing notes is one thing, professors say. Selling them is another. And the Internet has turned the practice into a commercial phenomenon.

"To me it's like saying you can't use Cliff Notes," said Ron Merelman, a Vermont lawyer who represented GotNotes. "Yet Cliff Notes are sold on every campus in the country.

"And for a professor to be teaching out of texts and then claiming personal intellectual property rights is absurd."

At least 13 companies are offering this service on the Internet to students, according to Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at Purdue University who has written on the issue.

Versity.com and StudentU.com have note-takers on more than 400 campuses who can earn as much as $400 a semester. The companies earn their money not from the students but from the ads they sell on their Web sites.

More than class notes

Their services are not restricted to note-taking. StudentU.com, a Houston-based firm, also offers study tips, time management skills and advice on joining a fraternity.

At the University of Maryland, Versity.com's ads can be found tacked to kiosks, chalked on sidewalks and distributed in classrooms.

"AWESOME Opportunity. Versity.com offers free class lecture notes, local content, contests, and other cool services to college students. All for free! " reads the ad in UM's school newspaper, the Diamondback.

Ryan Beagen, a 22-year-old UM student from Shrewsbury, N.J., has logged onto Versity's Web site to review notes for his marketing class. The quality of the notes wasn't an issue for Beagen - a close friend was taking them.

"Sometimes it just helps to read somebody else's notes to get a different perspective on the class. It almost forms a free study sheet for you," said Beagen. "You're putting faith in somebody else's work. It's a risk a lot of people are willing to take."

Worst grades in 30 years

UVM professor Stephen L. Pastner learned that commercial note-takers were in his anthropology class during an exam review he gave. He noticed his students carrying cherry red folders -- notes provide by an employee of the now-defunct GotNotes.

When Pastner marked the exams, he was astounded at the results -- a 50 percent failure rate.

"This was the worst set of grades that I have seen in 30 years," he said.

The notes "certainly weren't worth paying for," he said.

Pastner recalled one notes blooper shared by a University of Michigan colleague. The professor was discussing the geological period known as Pleistocene. But the note taker heard and recorded it as "plastic scene."

"It's idiotic," said Pastner.

Robert M. Owen, an associate dean at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, said professors might think twice about what they choose to share with their students if they know their lectures are being offered free on the Web.

"For example, it wouldn't be uncommon for me even in teaching an introductory oceanography course to mention a new discovery that one of my grad students have come up with in the lab," he said.

"Well, that's fine if it's the class. ...

On the other hand, if it's on the World Wide Web it could undermine that student's ability to get a paper out on it."

The University of Michigan campus at Ann Arbor from which the founders of Versity.com launched their business, has not taken an official position on commercial note takers. A report is forthcoming.

"One thing the committee was absolutely adamant on was if we were to allow any commercial note taking on campus, it would definitely have to have the permission from the instructor," said Owen.

"We don't want to shut it off altogether. Some individual instructors feel they may be a help."

But Mark Roszkowski, a business professor at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, says the services compromise the learning process.

"It gives students another reason not to come to class. Class attendance is already hard to maintain without the lecture notes being out there," said Roszkowski, who sought unsuccessfully to have his school speak out against the practice."Ninety percent of what they learn in class is in the process of writing their own class notes."

Supplement and resource

Digney-Peer, the founder of GotNotes, said his company's notes were never meant to be a substitute for attending class -- a position taken by other commercial note-takers.

"Obviously you can't pass the class just on these lecture notes. These notes are only another supplement and resource to get good grades in the class," he said. "This is only used to fill in the gaps."

The notes to about 60 courses at the University of Maryland can be viewed on the Versity.com Web site. Rodney Petersen, director of policy and planning in the university's Office of Information Technology, said he doesn't believe the commercial note-taking companies are violating copyright laws.

Copyright pertains to material that is "fixed in a tangible medium," said Petersen.

"Whenever a student is taking notes based on some oral presentation of ideas, they are in effect creating their own copyrighted expression," said Petersen."Unless they are transcribing word for word ... they are essentially interpreting, synthesizing the information they hear."

Other universities view the issue as a violation of school policies that restrict commercial activities unless approved by the Board of Regents.

But as UM student Beagen observed: "It's a great way to be paid for something you're going to be doing anyway."

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