February 17, 2010

GradeGuru Ventures Into Professors’ Territory

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While note-sharing websites greatly expand the possibilities of collaborative learning, they also raise some thorny ethical issues — Do lectures belong to the professors who teach them or to the students who absorb the material?

When informed that someone had posted six sets of notes from her class HIST 1530: American History on gradeguru.com, Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, said, “I had no idea.” Norton, who “never agrees” to letting TakeNote in her classroom, believed that she had an “oral copyright” over her lecture notes. “[One] could argue that [GradeGuru is] violating the law,” Norton said.

Sites like gradeguru.com, sharenotes.com and isleptthroughclass.com pay students for their notes based on the quality and quantity of their postings, among other criteria. GradeGuru was developed by McGraw-Hill, a textbook company, based on the company’s extensive ethnographic research into how students study. Unlike TakeNote, a company that has sold lecture notes to Cornell students since 1985, the websites are free for anyone to access. They hope to make their profit from ad revenue generated by online traffic, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian. Cornell is currently the second largest university participant on gradeguru.com.

Like Norton, Prof. Dawn Schrader, education, was unaware that 15 sets of notes from her class HD 3110: Educational Psychology had been posted on GradeGuru. Schrader said she feels that lecture notes are the “intellectual property of the professor,” who “should be consulted” before students post classroom material on the Internet.

So do these professors have a case? Probably not, said Tracy Mitrano, Cornell’s Director of Information Technology Policy. Only professors who read “straight off a sheet of paper” would have clear legal recourse against a company or student who profits from copies which are either “exactly or substantially similar” to the lectures. Regardless, Mitrano believes that professors should still have some sort of oral copyright claim.

“I believe strongly that a faculty member has the authority to state that students may not use the materials in the course, including class lectures and notes taken therein, for commercial purposes,” Mitrano said in an e-mail statement. “It is a distinction with a difference, i.e. copyright infringement … verses the authority that a faculty member has in his or her classroom supported by the Academic Integrity Policy of the University.”

These websites have countered that their new online communities will help students learn better.

“We see note sharing as evolving into a more collaborative community of notes … students helping each other in more real time,” GradeGuru founder Emily Sawtell told Higher Education last August.

Not all teachers feel that they should restrict the new flow of information. Prof. David Zax, chemistry and chemical biology, did not know that notes from his class CHEM 2070 were posted on GradeGuru, but he had no problem with students profiting from his notes.

“[I have] no sense [of] being deprived of my properties,” Zax said.

Zax did wonder, however, if the site might discourage students from coming to class, a sentiment echoed by Prof. Derek Chang, history.

“Part of [a student’s] education is coming to class and try[ing] to figure [the material] out,” said Chang, who was similarly uninformed that students in a past class had used GradeGuru. “The way I teach history, the process of sitting in class with me and taking notes is integral to how students learn. If you’re going to short-circuit that, you’re missing something… [the] student comes out without being any more knowledgeable.”

GradeGuru’s Cornell Campus Representative Jennifer Niesluchowski ’10 countered that athletic matches and other extracurricular activities often cause students to miss class, and websites like GradeGuru provide opportunities for these students to catch up on important material.

“Sometimes it’s impossible to go to class,” Niesluchowski, who has played on the women’s ice hockey team for three years, said.

Prof. Norton also questioned how reliable the notes of students could really be. The websites, she said, are a “terrible way for students to learn,” since there is “no way of knowing whether these notes are accurate.”

Yet the teachings of Aristotle only survived through the notes of his students. In two thousand years, then, perhaps future scholars will be accessing the words of Norton and other professors through the virtual fragments of GradeGuru.com.

In the original article, the author omitted a crucial portion of Tracy Mitrano’s statement. The full statement has been included, and the Sun regrets this error.

Original Author: Jeff Stein