Cheat Sheets On The Web

Thanks to a new Web site, college students can now skip the lectures and just read somebody else's notes. This is news? CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver considers the implications. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is
Oh, my gosh. Seems like a new Internet company is paying students at some five dozen universities $300 per semester to take notes in class and post them on the 'Net. There's even a $200 finder's bonus for signing up new recruits.

According to The New York Times, it's called StudentU.Com and was founded by Oran Wolf, a 27-year-old University of Texas Alum.

This naturally conjures up the vision of students at 62 universities around the nation sleeping in en masse while an occasional capitalistic classmate sits alone in a huge lecture hall scribbling under the baleful gaze of a perplexed professor.

Parents everywhere are clasping their checkbooks to their breasts, wondering if theirs will be the slack-off students who cut class and cram for exams, hunched over a computer struggling to make sense of notes taken by someone they've never met in a class they've never attended.

But let's not panic. Presumably these kids went to college because they were not complete idiots. So maybe they'll raise their pierced eyebrows when they note that the Times story makes no mention of how the service would make sure that the note takers are not sleeping in, too, and making up the notes.

And then there's Mr. Wolf's acknowledgment that he wasn't looking for the best students, just the ones that take the most notes. Or how 'bout the news that he started recruiting his note takers at fraternities?

Ah yes. So it now seems that what Mr. Wolf is doing is not news in itself, though it may be news to the Internet. Fraternities nationwide have been notorious for owning files of notes, term papers and even exam answers. Maybe they helped some students pass, but I don't remember hearing anyone aced an exam based on perusal of a frat brother's scribblings.

The same people who hit the Internet to get their information on what went on in class are also bound to be the ones who read the Cliffs Notes instead of the book. There's a good bet they won't be setting the curve on the final.

I do agree with the professor who called the practice of students selling their notes to the Web "sleazy." But on another level, Mr. Wolf's service may produce a benefit he never intended: weeding out the mundane teachers from the great ones.

I see that he has posted numerous courses from my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. And it's possible that I might have liked to skip the lectures if I had to take a course in deterministic modeling.

But back in days of yore, when students packed the halls for Alan Dessin's Shakespeare lecturesor Bart Friedman's course on the Irish literary revival, or George Mosse's talks on European history, it wasn't due to fear of failing.

These professors dazzled us with their insights, made characters in plays and historical figures come to life, and forced us into the exhilaration of thought.

So if college administrators are suddenly confronted with the undeniable facts that some professors' classrooms are full and others are empty, they may be forced to improve the overall quality of teaching at their universities.

And maybe the keepers of the collegiate flame will not have to cite as yet another example of the technology-assisted decline of civilization.