Note Taking Learning Resources

Notes and Learning Resources: Why We Cannot (And Should Not) Stop Student Sharing

Editor’s Note: This article has first been been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

In today’s post, I would like to discuss some aspects of note-sharing. Of course, there are different groups involved here, and everybody has their own take on the matter.

Students: Students mostly love it, as this form of curation–possible thanks to the Internet–makes their life easier. They can work through and digest more information in less time. For these digital natives, it seems to be the normal way of consumption. They are less aware (or don’t care) about copyright, but want to use and share information freely and whenever they want.

Faculty, School Administrators: Another group of people who are faced with note-sharing, and have to deal with its consequences, are school teachers, principals, professors and deans. Over the past couple of months, I haven’t found a consistent school policy on note-sharing. In most cases, some recommendations given by the school or college seem to exist, but it is largely left to the individual teacher or professor to decide whether they allow note-taking and then the sharing of these notes, and to what degree this might be tolerated.

Businesses: Then we have providers of solutions that aim at facilitating the process. These can be small startups like in the case of Notehall, an online marketplace to share, buy and sell notes. At the time of their launch in 2009, the startup was largely flying under the radar, as professional tools and websites where students could share notes were just beginning to emerge and were simply not important enough that schools and universities cared. Due to the success of Notehall among students, this changed a great deal in 2010 when copyright owners got increasingly worried about the masses of content shared by students.

Eventually, Notehall found the best exit from their (potential) copyright infringement problems when they were bought by textbook rental giant Chegg in June 2011. What we shouldn’t forget is that this deal opened Chegg to completely new ways to expand. For some time now, the company hasn’t seen itself as a textbook rental service anymore, but as an academic hub that allows students to save time, money and get smarter – so the vision and aim have become much more ambitious over time.

Another company, Kno, is very active in adding features that facilitate sharing and exchange between peers through its digital textbooks. As Kno is exponentially bigger and more well-funded than Notehall was, as well as in the sensitive market of digital textbooks, the first reaction from publishers happened pretty quickly. It’s a long story, but the short version is that Cengage learning pulled their textbooks from the Kno platform for concerns about copyright infringement. Kno then sued Cengage for breach of contract stating that Cengage makes an important part of Kno’s business. For ourreview:ed show back in February, we invited Richard Santalesa of the Information Law Group to shed some light on the case in particular, but also note-sharing in general.

What is the essence of everything happening around note-sharing right now?

Well first, students won’t stop a behavior that is natural to them. The Internet itself is an open space and information flows freely. Also, if a school or university tries to restrict their students by adding filters, blocking certain services or social networks, among other strategies, they might succeed to a certain extent during school, but will eventually fail since students can acquire information off-campus. This will sooner rather than later undermine what is happening in some institutions.

The same is true, with some possible delay, for publishers. Certainly, they’re still in a somewhat strong position right now, but look what has happened to the music industry. It’s just a matter of time.

What should you do in a situation when you cannot stop change? Slow it down, hinder it?

For some time, maybe. A more wise reaction would instead be to embrace change. As I pointed out, students are sometimes not even aware that sharing certain information, text passages or entire lectures with their peers is wrong or against school rules. Again, it’s their natural social behavior and part of the way they learn.

We have to start thinking in a way similar to the open source movement. When all information is freely available and can be shared, what we need to indicate is the original source. For instance, if I take a passage from student X,Y,Z, then I should make the attribution to him/her so that my peers, as well as my instructor are aware, and know how much work I have done myself and what percentage might be the result of the intellectual work of a peer.

Coming back to the analogy of open source — it has created some great products and it would be absurd to say that everyone in the open source movement would only take and not contribute. Certainly, as always in life, some take more than they contribute (and vice versa). But for example, many users might take snippets of code and use it in their own products. They create something new, make the attribution to the original source, and the new product or service is open to the community again.

I could imagine a similar approach work well in an academic context, within a class, a student group, or tied to an instructor and all the students they’re teaching.

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Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at