The Economics of Note Sharing

For the Notehall founders note sharing paid off quite well. In June their start-up got acquired by textbook rental juggernaut Chegg for an undisclosed amount in cash and stock. Notehall was founded in 2008 at the Arizona State University and is available at 54 universities across the US today. 

Moreover, Notehall sold the rights to Sundeep Mahajan who is building Notehall India, signing up 83 colleges already including Delhi University, Amity, JIMs, and Symbiosis Pune. Notehall India is aiming to cover 500 colleges and universities all over India by the end of 2011. 

Since the launch of the first platforms in that space faculty members have been worried, to say the least. Though the intention of sharing notes amongst students might be altruistic at its core, the added economic factor of earning money and turning the note taking into a small business gives it a new, in some US states like California apparently even illegal angle. 

It’s a thin line and if you take a look at the phrasing you notice that Notehall has been aware of it. The footer explicitly says that 

“Our site is not a substitute for missing class. Information gathered on this web site is intended as supplemental information. Notehall does not condone cheating. All users must abide by our stringent Terms of Service.” 

But what can a platform actually do against misuse? We have seen the same with eBay being “just the platform” which happened to attract sellers of replicas. In the end it got eBay in big trouble, especially in Europe where most of the copied high end brands have their home. 

So, of course Notehall and other platforms like Notesolution will be used as a substitute for going to class, especially when the attendance is not checked. The notes will be used as sole basis to prepare for a test and also for cheating. No doubt about it. 

The question is if there is actually something to do about it? Again, the use of Internet platforms is predominantly a shift in society and behavior, the effects on education are secondary. Therefore a change in definition of academic honesty might be on its way, in the minds of students for sure. 

What I am most critical about personally is the focus on earning hard cash for uploading notes and study guides. Though it might originally look like a great and simple motivator, I do believe that it slowly poisons the ecosystem on campus. Note takers might be seduced to focus on creating content for cash instead of uploading material they produced for themselves in the first place. This may lead to a general decline of the quality. On the other hand, students may decide to simply pay some extra bucks and short cut on class attendance. To exaggerate a bit for the sake of painting the picture, in the end the professor might end giving a lecture in front of 5 people only who transcribe the lecture and sell it on the Internet.

To me, one of the major problems is that the platform is not limited to exchange of notes but students can also participate without sharing their own notes by buying credits. This turns the platform in a classic marketplace with sellers and buyers. 

Canada based Notesolution is taking it from a different angle, enabling note takers to exchange their credits earned in $10 gift cards which I prefer. Nevertheless, Notesolution will also introduce the option of buying credits to download notes and guides without actively participating in the platform with the beginning of the upcoming semester. 

Though one can argue on the ethical implications, the question remains if note sharing platforms are actually legal or not. David Graham, provost of Concordia University said in an interview with MacLeans that it depends on the individual professor’s decision. He of course sees the risk that 

“There’s now the potential for a lazy student to fool themselves into thinking ‘Hey, I never have to go to class again.’ ” 

which in itself questions the purpose of an university. But in Canada there is no clear rule against note sharing or skipping classes as it seems. 

For Mark Cioc, Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education at UCSC the situation it quite clear. In an email he sent out to all undergraduates in November 2011 Cioc wrote 

“Please note that students may be disciplined for selling, preparing, or distributing course lecture notes for any commercial purpose, whether or not the student himself or herself took the notes. The unauthorized sale of lecture notes (and handouts, readers or other course materials) is a violation of campus policies (Student Judicial Handbook, sections 102.17 and 102.018). Judicial action for violating campus policies may include disciplinary probation, suspension, or dismissal, which may have serious effects on your academic careers. The sale of classroom notes is also a violation of state law (Cal. Educ. Code, section 66450) and may be associated with civil penalties of up to $25,000 depending on the number of offenses. It may also constitute copyright infringement subject to legal action.” 

Bottom line, I don’t think that platforms like Notehall or Notesolution can be stopped. They are a manifestation of the mind-shift of the generation now studying as both start-ups were founded by students on campus. There is no doubt that colleges and universities need to protect the integrity of education and academic honesty but our society goes through a fundamental change with social networking, online collaboration, mash-ups and crowd-sourcing being part of it.

Picture: Morguefile user cohdra

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.