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Dot-Coms in Our Lecture Halls

By Mathieu Deflem

Harvard, Princeton, Yale and UCLA are among the courageous universities that have in recent months successfully developed and/or implemented policies against commercial notes companies on the Internet. Partly as a result to the success of these initiatives, other colleges and universities across the country are now discussing appropriate policies to secure a respectful environment in which students and teachers can fulfill their educational goals. Most recently, the universities of Minnesota and Vermont worked out policies that ban the sale of lecture notes without instructor's permission.

However, new developments indicate that commercial notes businesses have in many ways gained ground. Since they appeared on the Internet last fall, online notes companies have been able to rely on financial expectations surrounding e-commerce and managed to gather huge sums of money in financing. Versity.com, for example, has attracted $11.2 million from investors in just one year, while StudentU.com has some $6 million invested in its operations. The investors leave little doubt about the true motives of the notes companies. One of them justified the investment because, according to the Detroit Free Press, he hoped that the notes company "will make a lot of money on the Web."

To secure revenue from website advertising, companies recruit notetakers through aggressive advertising campaigns. They send e-mails, create websites, post ads in the local college press, employ students to hand out pamphlets outside our classrooms and visit greek houses to market products. Companies give out freebies and hold contests that offer lucrative prizes. Marketing techniques and the quest for profit have even lead these companies to dismiss professors' complaints and make misleading and false statements in the press, claiming support from professors and students.

Over the past months, the notes market has expanded considerably. At present, some 13 such companies exist on the Internet. The expansion of the market has also involved attempts at monopolization. The notes company GethruCollege.com, for instance, was approached by two other notes companies in an attempt to acquire the company immediately after it was formed.

But even more alarming is that notes companies have been diversifying their businesses by acquiring other college-related enterprises, such as book-selling sites, college news sites and many more. In January 2000, the notes company Studentu.com announced that it had formed the Uzone, a website that not only offers lecture notes but also a host of other products related to the "market" of college students, such as news, clothing and music sites. The motives of the strategy were clearly revealed when the CEO of the company publicly stated that the acquisition brought the company "one step closer to its takeover of the online student market." Apparently making good on its ambitions, in February 2000 the company purchased 28th Street, the Los Angeles-based publisher of a college magazine.

Late last month, possibly the most ambitious expansion yet of the educational commerce market took place when it was announced that WhataboutU.com had acquired the notes companies TakeNote and TarHeel Notes for an undisclosed amount of cash and equity stake in the new company. The expansion plan of WhataboutU involves distribution of college-related materials domestically as well as internationally through a network of global destination sites.

The diversification and expansion of the notes businesses creates the frightening vision of a huge commercial giant intruding into every aspect of our education. We are witnessing, in other words, the appearance of a rapidly expanding education-commercial complex, guided by monetary concerns and technologically driven to intrude upon education and interfere in the commitment, dedication and respect we enjoy in our work. With such developments in mind, it becomes clear that the essential question is not just one of rights (copyright versus free speech) but whether as teachers and students, we still wish to be involved in a public service oriented at qualified instruction, or whether we have become sheer buyers and sellers dealing in product.

Mathieu Deflem is an assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University. He conducts a website campaign against commercial notes companies, which can be found at: http://www.sla.purdue.edu/people/soc/mdeflem/education.htm

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