Students profit from diligent note-taking

Good grades aren’t the only benefits college students can reap for faithful note taking. They can get a paycheck, too—thanks to a new web venture that has raised concerns among some professors., created by two award-winning students from Babson College in Massachusetts, invites students and professors nationwide to upload their class lecture notes, making them available to anyone with a free Knetwit account.

Every time a student’s notes are downloaded, they are awarded "Koins," or Knetwit currency. Every "Koin" is equivalent to four cents. When a student reaches the $10 mark, he or she can cash in or buy a product—such as a water bottle or Frisbee—from the Knetwit store. Students can search by keyword, subject area, course, or school. If a student can’t find a specific set of notes, he or she can post a request for the material on Knetwit.

Although students appreciate converting classroom diligence into spending money, some professors and academic experts are concerned that Knetwit and similar sites could allow students to take shortcuts, offering little incentive to attend class if they know a classmate will take notes and provide these online.

"What concerns us is that students might potentially circumvent important processes [that] teachers might want them to go through," said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. "[Students] could miss out on an important part of the course. … The reason we have lectures in person is because you get something out of it."

Knetwit officials insist the site is "legal" and "ethical." In a Knetwit blog post from Sept. 19, company spokesman Phil Van Peborgh documented a recent complaint from a college professor who wrote, "What you propose to do is theft of intellectual property. … Do you plan to compensate me for the copyright of my lectures when one of my students sells it to you?? If not, then I recommend you shut down now before a bevy of faculty sue you for compensation (and based upon copyright law, we will win) for the piracy of our material!!"

Van Peborgh said backlash from some educators was expected after the launch of what he called an innovative Web 2.0 site.

"When you’re starting something new and different, there’s bound to be some misunderstandings about what you’re trying to achieve and how you plan to go about it," Van Peborgh wrote, adding that Knetwit’s designers worked closely with academic advisers and attorneys and that the site has a "report abuse" link that allows users to report copyright violations. "We will not tolerate theft of intellectual property."

Van Peborgh said every posting that violates copyright law will be removed from Knetwit.

Tricia Bertram Gallant, coordinator for the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California San Diego, said sites like Knetwit trick students into using a service that could undermine their education and potentially draw the ire of university officials.

"Beyond modeling a familiar dishonesty in advertising, their misrepresentation may fool some students into thinking that the use of the site is a legitimate way to complete their academic work, and it may not always be—thus potentially landing the student who uses it in trouble with his or her own institution," Bertram Gallant said in an eMail message to eSchool News.

Fishman said Knetwit is similar to common university policies that offer payment for students who take notes that are later shared with special-needs students who cannot jot down notes during a lecture. Sharing academic resources—including class notes—is often encouraged by higher-education officials, Fishman said, but compensating students adds a wrinkle that makes some professors uncomfortable.

"If they are posting their own notes that they took, that’s one thing," she said. "If they’re posting the professors’ work, that’s a violation of not only copyright laws, but [also] the trust between the professor and the student. … If students take that information and make a profit from it, that’s a whole other consideration."

Despite the controversy stirred by Knetwit over the last year, site creators Benjamin Wald and Tyler Jenks, both 21, recently were included in BusinessWeek’s list of the 25 Best Young Entrepreneurs of 2008. They were recognized for creating a site that connects students with common educational needs, while rewarding often cash-strapped students for diligently taking notes.

Wald, who along with Jenks, operates Knetwit in Tennessee, said the company recently assembled an academic advisory board consisting of professors, students, and college administrators. He said the advisory board consults Knetwit officials on issues of academic integrity, ensuring the site can be used only as an ethical student tool. 

"This is something we take very seriously," Wald said.
Wald pointed out there are several web sites similar to Knetwit, but added that he and Jenks felt Knetwit contributors deserved compensation for their notes. After all, Wald said, without user content, Knetwit wouldn’t exist. 

"It’s not reinventing the wheel by any means," he said. "What we’re doing is aggregating the information and I think it throws a little excitement and flair into the equation. … We said, ‘Why don’t we make our users partners with us and reimburse them for helping us.’"

Knetwit has its practical purposes, but it also provides a social networking forum. Students can find their peers through a search function, and Knetwit users can track whose notes have been downloaded the most by tracking the site’s "leaderboard."

As of late September, the school with the most Knetwit users was Carnegie Mellon University, with 622 students signed up for the service and 2,919 notes uploaded to the site. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was a distant second, with 115 students and 63 sets of notes posted. 

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education show that sites like Knetwit will never be short on material. From the more than 25 million high school and college students with home internet access, 1.9 billion pages of class notes and study material are generated every year.

"College students see social networking and online research as part of their everyday academic life," Wald said, adding that he was "familiar with the frustrations that often come with researching information online. And with Knetwit, we strive to make it easier for people to find relevant information around any topic."
Bertram Gallant, of UCSD, said posting notes without a professor’s permission is "dishonest and further undermines the educational environment by commercializing the classroom experience," adding that colleges and universities will struggle with these issues for many years.

"If we think we can legislate or moralize our way out of these issues, we are mistaken," Gallant said.



Center for Academic Integrity

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