The business of notes

Students can now download other people’s notes for a small fee. So much for going to classes.

The business of notes

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

It was two o’clock in the morning on the night before her physiology mid-term when Jennifer Hidy turned on her laptop and saw what she calls “the blue screen of death.” A virus had killed her hard drive, erasing all of the carefully curated lecture notes that she was planning to read in the wee hours of the morning before her nine o’clock exam. She had visions of failure. She considered calling a friend. Then she remembered hearing about a new website called Notesolution.

Hidy headed to the school library, entered her University of Toronto email address into the site and—much to her relief—found that someone else had uploaded notes for her physiology classes. She printed them off and studied. A mere seven hours after recoiling from the blue screen, she sat down and aced her exam.

That’s the type of user that Kevin Wu, Jack Tai and Jackey Li envisioned helping when the three University of Toronto commerce students (now graduates) founded Notesolution last fall, says Wu. Since launching at four universities last November, the site has grown to 10 schools and nearly 10,000 members.

The site works like this. Instead of pleading with the stranger who sits next to them for notes from classes they’ve missed, students can upload their own lecture notes, chapter summaries and study guides for credits that allow them to download equal amounts of other people’s work. Users are only permitted to upload their own work and test answers are strictly prohibited. Students who earn enough credits can cash out for $10 gift cards. More than 300 have been awarded so far. Best of all,the site is free.

At least it will be until September. That’s when the owners hope to start earning money with a new option for downloading—a somewhat controversial option. Students will be able to pay a small fee to Notesolution to buy other people’s notes. That’s creating new questions about academic honesty in the age of the Internet.

The answers aren’t always clear. Ryerson University engineering student Chris Avenir found that out the hard way after he was threatened with expulsion in 2008 for running a chemistry study group on Facebook. On the site, students exchanged answers for assignments that were worth 10 per cent of their marks. Avenir was found guilty of cheating. The school allowed him to stay, but awarded him a mark of zero.

So is buying notes online cheating? David Graham, provost of Concordia University and the school’s top authority on academic honesty, says that note-sharing may or may not be a problem, depending on the professor. “Some will have rules whereby students can’t collaborate on homework—other professors will promote that kind of co-operative work because they believe it promotes learning,” he says. Although Graham doesn’t anticipate an outbreak of academic dishonesty when Concordia students start using Notesolution, he does see another problem. “There’s now the potential for a lazy student to fool themselves into thinking ‘Hey, I never have to go to class again.’ ”

Like collaboration, there’s no clear rule against that either, says Graham. “But if you’re one of those people who believes the experience of getting the education is a very important part of it, that nearly defeats the whole purpose of university.” In other words, students will have to decide for themselves whether to participate in the new cash market for notes. Graham hopes they choose wisely.

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