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Tuesday, September 21, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 21

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Questions linger about notetaking businesses

Undergrad Council raises legal questions; Berkeley sues to keep service off campus

By Audrey Warren
Senior Staff Writer

The business of selling lecture notes to university students is expanding rapidly, attracting both criticism and support.

Services like Our SMA Review, located near the UH campus, offer lecture notes, examination study sessions and examination preparation reviews for a price to students who want to supplement their own notes.

SMA does not encourage students to miss class, but to attend and use the service as a complement to their own notetaking, said Shaik Ahmed, general coordinator for the live review sessions and the exam package assemblies.

"We are only a complement to the learning process," Ahmed said. "We help students study and focus for exams. Students do very well who study our exam packets."

Study materials at SMA are provided by students already enrolled in the courses. SMA does not hire students expressly to sit in on classes in which they are not enrolled, Ahmed said.

Despite their claims that the notes and exam packets help students, services like SMA Review are often criticized by professors for undermining the educational value that comes from attending lectures.

And the industry isn't localized. Internet-based businesses like StudentU.com, NotesU.com and allstudents.com offer notetaking services for a variety of courses at universities nationwide, including UH.

At the Houston-based StudentU.com, students can select from 62 different colleges and universities across the United States and search through course listings for notes from a specific course, section and professor.

The company was started by 27-year-old University of Texas graduate Oran Wolf, who noticed UH didn't have the type of notetaking services available to him at UT.

The company today employs about 1,200 college students who are paid to take notes.

"Going to college can overwhelm some people," Wolf told the Houston Chronicle. "I believe students will use the service to supplement their notes and enhance their educational experience. We definitely don't condone anyone using this to skip class."

Sites like those were a topic of discussion at last week's UH Undergraduate Council meeting, where Assistant Vice President for Student Development William Munson addressed the Chronicle's article.

"The article reports that some faculty at the University have indicated that it's a positive thing, but there was a different opinion voiced (last week) at the Undergraduate Council," Munson said.

Some faculty members expressed concern that the lecture notes might be considered intellectual property, Munson said. He added that the questions are more far-reaching than that, including the legal protection afforded outlines, course packets, exam papers and other handouts.

Munson said the Council's discussion reached no resolution because no attorney was present at the meeting, but UH law Professor Raymond Nimmer said there is no law that prevents selling lecture notes because copyright laws do not apply to speech.

"When students take notes, they don't usually copy verbatim," Nimmer said. Because the notes are the students' own interpretations of the lecture, professors cannot keep them from being posted.

Munson said more clear-cut rules exist regarding the commercial aspect of campus note services.

UH has a solicitation policy that allows the school to restrict a company's advertising and selling of products to a certain time, place and manner.

Companies can place advertisements in The Daily Cougar, post flyers on University bulletin boards or rent tables at the University Center, Munson said, but any other commercial activity must be done through a contract with the University -- for example, the contracts with the UH Bookstore and Chartwells food service.

When a representative from allstudents.com came on campus and started distributing recruitment flyers after one of history professor Lawrence Curry's classes, she violated that solicitation policy, Munson said.

When confronted, the representative -- who Curry identified as Duttie Cross -- said she had obtained permission from Munson to hand out flyers, which was not true. Cross did not return calls from The Daily Cougar or from Munson.

Allstudents.com representatives reportedly traveled all over the United States at the beginning of this semester attempting to establish a presence on campuses nationwide.

The online services recruit potential note-takers not only in face-to-face visits, but also through their sites. Interested students can complete online applications; the services promise pay of anywhere between $300 and $600 per semester for note-takers.

Professors whose lecture notes are posted on the services stressed that the notes are often an incomplete representation of the lectures.

"The amount of material they have (at the sites) is about as good as going through the book and reading the titles of the sections -- it's missing a lot," said UH physics Professor Billy Mayes, whose Introductory General Physics class lecture notes are posted.

"In scientific areas, you have to deal with details. The important thing is that I work examples in class, and none of the examples were there (in the notes)," Mayes said. "Anyone who relies on those notes is going to be in trouble."

Munson agreed, raising a question about quality control in commercial notetaking.

"I think (students) should be skeptical dealing with notes online if they don't know the quality of the students taking the notes," he said.

Communication Professor Robert Heath agreed. "I think it is OK if it is used in a way that reinforces notes students take in class," said Heath, whose Introduction to Communication Theory course notes are for sale.

"(But) with a commuter college, students have all sorts of reasons not to get in their car and go to school," he said. "Can we really have a university where students go to buy a degree?"

That is the question at the University of California-Berkeley, which filed suit against R.R. Lecture Notes, a business that sells essay papers and exams to students.

Berkeley has a policy prohibiting commercial activity on campus without permission from the UC Board of Regents. R.R. Lecture Notes has continued business on the campus despite four years of requests from the university to leave.

UC officials cited harassment of students and policy violations in their suit, which also alleges that the company has threatened students who complain about poorly taken notes and outdated or incomplete material.

A similar business near Texas A&M University, Notes and Quotes, offers notes to A&M students but avoids trouble from university officials by having the note-takers inform professors of their presence in the class.

"We ask teachers before, so they know we have the notes," said Clint Roberts, a senior agriculture-business major working at the store.

Roberts said he uses the service to support his own notetaking.

"The notes are usually taken by graduate students for classes with over 100 people, and it really helps some people to get extra studying," Roberts said.


 
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