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Study Buddy

A Web service that facilitates the sale of class notes raises ethical questions at the UA

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Before a test in his traditions class near the end of the fall semester, Bradley Brown, a UA freshman majoring in economics, went online and downloaded a study guide.

He had never used Notehall.com before, but he liked what he saw.

Notehall.com was launched in September 2008 by Justin Miller, a junior in the Eller College of Management, and Sean Conway, who graduated from the college in 2007. The site allows users with a valid university e-mail address to browse the UA schedule and select their classes; for each class, users can contact classmates, form study groups and, most importantly, buy or sell class notes.

While passing notes in class is generally frowned upon, selling them online is not against UA rules. In fact, the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, UA's student government, endorsed Notehall and formed a partnership between the service and the university.

Brown thinks the partnership and the business is a great idea and says buying someone else's study guide isn't unethical; rather, it's logical.

"Especially for people like me," he says, "who are trying to study for five classes, with the time it takes to make a study guide, let alone study, you can go to Notehall and find someone who's already made a study guide. I don't see that as cheating in any way. ... You're just studying."

With finals looming heavy on the minds of nearly 10,000 Notehall-subscribing UA students this week, Notehall.com is poised to do some serious business. It works like this: Students download notes in just about any format (.doc, .pdf, .ppt etc.). Lecture notes cost 25 credits (roughly 60 cents). Considering that to get those notes, some poor sap had to stay awake through 90 minutes of a PowerPoint presentation in a cramped, 300-person lecture hall, it's not a bad deal.

However, the diligent note-taker in the front row may not be a poor sap after all. Each time someone downloads notes, money goes into the note-taker's account. Study guides are especially profitable, paying out $1 per download. Reading notes and lecture notes pay 25 to 50 cents per download—numbers that can add up.

Top sellers, the Web site brags, have earned more than $500 per semester—not bad if you're a compulsive note-taker.

Mikaela Hudson is proud of her copious notes. She's a senior in business marketing and management, and was the vice president of the Eller Board of Honor and Integrity last semester when she received an e-mail from Notehall.com. Selling her notes and study guides sounded like easy money, and Hudson was intrigued.

But after thinking about the work she puts into each document (a study guide can take her 10 hours to research and write), she decided they were priceless.

"I don't feel like Notehall is cheating by any means," she says. "I just feel like it's helping lazy people get the same grade as you, and that's not fair."

Hudson says that neither she nor any of her six roommates use the site, but she knows many students do.

"In a perfect world, it would be a supplement," she says. "... But in actuality, that's not what it is. It's a way to stay home and not go to class."

Paul Melendez, the director of the undergraduate ethics and honors programs at Eller, was one of the first to bring ethical considerations to light, posting his concerns as a comment on the Arizona Daily Wildcat Web site.

His main problem isn't with students buying and selling notes, he says; there's no stopping that. His concerns involved whether students have a legal right to profit from notes taken from a professor's lecture, and the fact that some students can't afford to buy the notes.

After contacting Conway and Miller, Melendez got on board as sort of an unofficial ethical adviser to Notehall; he says the two are doing all they can to make sure the site is ethical, including giving him administrative access to the site to check for documents that might mean trouble. A few papers he flagged from his business-ethics class—exact copies of test essay questions—were taken off the site.

Notehall isn't a new idea, he says, just a new medium. Karl Eller, the famed entrepreneur for whom the Eller College of Management is named, engaged in note-taking for profit, Melendez says while pulling a copy of Eller's Integrity Is All You've Got from his office shelf.

While sitting next to a meticulous note-taker in class, Eller had an idea, and proposed a deal: He would handwrite her notes onto yellow sheets of carbon paper and sell them, and they could split the profit.

Business was slow until the professor announced that anyone caught with the yellow notes would be dropped from the class. Within days, Eller sold out of copies.

The founders say they hadn't heard the story until after starting Notehall, but the idea is the same—providing a useful, ethical service and making a buck.

"We're not a cheating resource," Miller says. "You know, we're not the site that has test answers; we don't have tests; we don't have solutions ... And once people start to understand that, they really value what we're creating, which is a supplemental, dynamic learning environment."

There's a need for this kind of material, they say, because everyone learns differently.

Conway, for instance, has attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and says he can't listen to a lecture and take notes at the same time. The two figured there were a lot of students like Conway—people who go to class but would rather listen to the professor than scramble to take notes.

They were right. Since it went live less than a year ago, Notehall has expanded to 11,500 registered users and four universities: Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Kansas, with more schools signing on in the fall.

"I think it's the most logical, ethical thing," Brown says. "It's just putting technology to its use. ... I think more people should use it."

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