Cyber-Notes

With lecture notes for sale, will students at the University of Virginia soon have any need to go to class?

By April Wright

Donny Wyatt pulls up a chair and settles into a smooth, rehearsed defense of his business, AccuNotes. His long legs stretch out comfortably underneath the table and his confidence commands attention over the university cafeteria's clatter. Laidback and friendly, Donny doesn't seem to be a young entrepreneur recovering from a failed business attempt. But his eyes give him away. They remain urgent when he smiles--pleading his case and desiring a convert. He wants to make his position clear and he hasn't paused since he sat down.

It's doubtful that he has paused much in the last year. He spent the spring and summer developing AccuNotes, a Web-based notes-for-sale service launched in the fall of 1997 for students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The controversy which followed Wyatt's launch may soon be duplicated at universities across the country.

Under Wyatt's plan, students in 48 of the University's most popular courses could purchase copies of notes for $1.99 per class. A vocal group of students and faculty opposed AccuNotes, appealing to the university's Honor Code, which forbids lying cheating and stealing. In response, Wyatt temporarily stopped selling notes.

Most of the complaints came from U.Va. faculty. Some professors expressed concern that their intellectual property rights would be violated. AccuNotes note-takers would "steal" their words and ideas to make a profit. Others worried that the value of class attendance would be undermined. AccuNotes would allow students to skip class without suffering for their negligence. Could this be considered cheating? By U.Va.'s standards, using AccuNotes to study for a test would be cheating if the professor declared them an unauthorized aid. At the very least, some professors feel students who skip class are cheating themselves. They miss qualities which are best perceived in person: the intonation of the lecturer's voice, sarcasm and emphasis.

"Who decides what's dishonorable and what's not?" Wyatt asks. "No one's really sure whose call it is." Should the concerns of a handful of professors override the benefits for hundreds of potential customers? Professors don't warn students against loaning notes when a friend has been sick. Wyatt suggests that the opposition's real problem with AccuNotes is that $1.99 changes hands. Wyatt anticipated that his business would raise these issues. "Anything new causes some questions. Anything new of this nature causes a few more questions."

Wyatt emphasizes what he considers the legitimizing features of his business: good intentions, commitment to quality, and community service. He intends for his business to provide study guides--not substitutes for attending class. He admits that he might be naive, but he expects that students at the University of Virginia can be trusted to use the service responsibly.

Detail-oriented Wyatt set up a system that ensures quality. Two note-takers are hired for each class and their notes are graded against each other. Note-takers are paid, up to $7 per class, based on the quality of their notes. "If we're not concerned with quality, we don't have a business, so that has to be our number one concern."

When he started the business, Wyatt feared that he might pull note-takers away from the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center, which provides notes for students with disabilities. He offered the center free access to AccuNote's services. Wyatt thinks he didn't do enough to publicize the company's objectives and postponed the grand opening when he "realized there was a misconception out there."

It's easy for misconceptions to spread through the impersonality of the World Wide Web. Conveniently located at www.accunotes.com, the business could provide students with 24 hour access to notes, but no contact with the director.

Go to the AccuNotes page and read the press release about the postponed opening. The statement is dotted with the pronoun "we." When asked who "we" refers to, Wyatt sheepishly confesses that he runs the whole business himself, "I've gotten used to saying 'we'...it sounds more impressive like that." The Web page's professional lay-out and polished jargon are misleading. Donny is only a third-year student in U.Va.'s McIntire School of Commerce. His dad taught him the business vocabulary and he learned Web page design through a do-it-yourself book. The system runs itself--sells notes, handles note-taker applications, writes payroll checks. Wyatt can monitor the business by just turning on his PC.

By bringing this business to the Web, Donny is a pioneer. Other schools with note-taking services, like the University of Florida, sell notes at traditional bookstores. The Web offers a store-front for businessmen who lack the capital and manpower to set up a shop on Main Street; it's perfect for college-age capitalists. Savvy young entrepreneurs everywhere will soon follow Wyatt's lead. And controversy will follow them. Even Florida's Webless note-sellers had to win a court battle before they first opened their doors. Their victory and the resulting legal precedent give Wyatt hope.

The personality hidden behind the Web page ensures that AccuNotes will come back fighting in the spring. Wyatt is not intimidated by a challenge. And besides, a normal business, or a normal student's life, would bore him. He's the kind of student who makes his peers wonder what they're doing with their spare time. His resume is a hodgepodge of prestigious honors and varied activities. When he was in the seventh grade, most of his friends were mowing lawns and saving their earnings to buy Bo Jackson baseball cards. Wyatt was busy making computer animated videos for the local school system and advising grocery stores on the use of point-of-purchase technology. (What is Point of Purchase technology? Something too complex to explain to those who just babysat or mowed lawns.)

On September 25th, U.Va.'s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, proclaimed, "AccuNotes is Dead." Such words are merely a challenge for Wyatt, who grins and speaks of his spring Resurrection Campaign. In the meantime, he's busy trying to convince professors of the integrity of his business. With each new, perhaps reluctant, convert, he will be closer to his vision. The sparkle in his blue eyes makes it apparent--he won't pause until he gets there.

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