Should College Kids Be Selling Their Notes Online?
“It’s essentially a Netflix for notes,” Kevin Wu says of the online platform he and three friends launched in 2011, fresh out of college themselves. OneClass is both an all-access pass to notes for college classes, and an easy way for students to earn some money. It’s one of many note-sharing startups that rely on college contributors.
Wu says 2.5 million students use OneClass, encompassing those who buy notes as well as those who sell them, though the latter — the kids who’ve gone to class and done the work — only make up about 10%. The other users pay for a subscription that gets them all the notes they need for $40 a month, $60 a semester, or — the most popular option, according to Wu — an economical $96 all year. This opens up the wellspring of daily class notes as well as additional study guides, all written and uploaded by current classmates, or anyone who’s taken that course in the past. The platform is available at 400 universities in North America (about a quarter of which are in Wu’s native Canada, and the rest in the United States, representing many public state schools and the entire Ivy League), and its website boasts 1.3 million documents.
The highest-earning note-taker, to date, took home $2,500 over three semesters, which could break down to 12 classes at $200 a pop, but the rates aren’t exactly that clear cut. Wu explains that the note-takers typically fall into two camps. The first is the casual uploader who realizes they have notebooks laying around from classes they’ve taken in the past. They can upload those notes for credits, which are paid out in the form of gift cards (like Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon). They get $10 for an entire course-worth of work (or a minimum of 10 documents).
“We are able to identify the better note-takers [by] just looking at their notes,” Wu says. Those students are invited to become “official notetakers,” of whom there are roughly 600 to 700 at the moment, he says.
“These are the note-takers that are enrolled in a class currently and upload their notes each week, and for each class they get paid $20 a week.” Andrea Silvera, 20, a sophomore studying applied mathematics at U.C. Davis, says she has made $1,200 on OneClass since joining in January 2018. She gets $20 per class per week via PayPal — with an $80 bonus at the end of the semester if all of her documents have met the OneClass quality standards, which Wu describes as “pretty strict.” Silvera lives with her family in Lumis, CA, and this is her only source of income during school; she says she uses it to pay for her books. “Sometimes on college campuses there aren’t always enough resources for students to get help,” she says; she likes that her notes can provide that.
OneClass user Tooba Alwani, 20, is midway through a seven-year combined undergrad and med-school program at Boston University. She says her other two jobs — as an MCAT tutor and a college-application counselor — offer her a fulfilling sense of supporting her fellow student. But she brings some of that conscientiousness to OneClass; before uploading her notes, she says she looks through what has already been posted for a given course to be sure she’s adding value. Other than that, she says, “it’s just nice to get a little bit of money for something that I already do.” She handwrites her notes in class, and appreciates that she can just scan and upload them, and wait for the money to come in.
Alwani says that sharing her notes in this way feels different than, say, handing her notebook to a classmate who didn’t show up to lectures all semester. “Usually I give my friends my notes if they need notes,” she says. “But if it was a random person, I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable directly giving them my notes. That’s why OneClass is nice, because I’m putting it on a platform. I don’t feel like I’m the one who’s in the process of giving it to someone else, if that makes sense.”
Today’s college-age students have grown up with smartphones and apps, part of a generation that has been criticized for its “technology addiction.” This generation is also, according to a BusinessInsider survey, largely preoccupied with money, debt, and how they’ll ever pay for college. “I think when you tell someone directly that I’m ‘selling’ my notes, it seems a little sketchy,” Alwani says. “But once you say that, no, I’m uploading my notes to a platform … it’s more, like, not sketchy.” This explanation is textbook Gen Z (and not just her word choice); the age group is known to be pragmatic, and concerned with personal safety and security.
As for Silvera, “sketchiness” hadn’t crossed her mind. “In a way, I am studying while also helping other students by selling my notes to them,” she says, referring to the process of typing up her notes before uploading. This extra step nabs her a $20 bonus, she says. “It’s a win-win situation.”
It’s at least a win for OneClass, which Wu says secured a funding round of $10 million in 2016 and is on pace to become profitable in 2019. Wu hopes to expand to more U.S. school systems this year (“definitely Florida,” he says; “there are some really big schools there.”). When asked about the moral implications of brokering note-sharing, the concept of fairness wasn’t really of his concern. Instead, he wanted to talk intellectual property. “I think we have to take a step back and really look at the reasons that faculty members would be against something like what we’re doing,” he said. “In terms of the morality, all of the content on the site is student-created. If you’re a student, and you’re attending a lecture by an instructor, where does the intellectual property fall? If you’re taking notes, does the content belong to you — if you’ve paid your tuition and took your notes — or is that still the instructor’s? I think that’s a difficult argument to settle; it’s in this nebulous gray area.”
That gray area may be why there’s a pretty deep Reddit rabbit hole with students complaining about fake Facebook profiles spamming supposedly exclusive student groups with links and offers related to OneClass. Or about OneClass not paying as much as it says it will for notes that have been uploaded. Meanwhile some universities have explicitly banned their students from using note-sharing apps (including U.C. Riverside, which still appears on the site), and other professors have raised flags when their exact tests (with answers) appeared online. One Reddit thread from earlier this year includes a message from a mathematics professor to his students mentioning an email they all received, and cautioning them not to be wooed by it. (It does not mention OneClass by name.)
“Their goal is just to make money by exploiting the stress of final exams,” it reads. “You don’t need to pay to get help for this course. Unlike these services, we, as the instructors, know what material is relevant for the final exam and for your success … [and] we can provide support.” The professor, whose name was listed alongside that email, did not respond to confirm its veracity.
Wu, like many entrepreneurs before him, says the unhappy customers are often the noisiest and that the people whose notes maybe weren’t good enough would largely be the ones venting on social media about being misled. But gathering student emails — and staying in touch with college students on Facebook and Twitter — is a big part of the company’s strategy. “We do try to work with as many as we can, to make sure that, if there are any concerns about what we’re doing, then we have an open dialog.”
Alwani found out about OneClass via a marketing email to her student inbox (for Silvera, it was a student Facebook group). “I think it was an email to all B.U. students,” she says, adding that she sees these all the time. This one caught her eye because it offered $450 for a single semester of notes, for a statistics class she happened to be taking. She applied, was accepted, and began submitting her notes via Google docs each week. (Wu says this was part of a process that’s no longer in place.) To hear her describe it, this was practically free money, and she soon joined the official OneClass platform to upload notes from classes she had already taken. To date, she’s made $750 total over five classes, or $75 each, not counting the high-value stats notes. “What we’re trying to do, in essence, is just to provide material and content to students and giving students access to content, which we’ve already proven throughout the last couple of years is helpful to them,” Wu says. “It is just providing access to this knowledge.”
And for the students with all that knowledge to share, it can be a budget boost. “Any money I make in college is for me to offset my personal expenses, so my parents don’t have to deal with that sort of thing,” Alwani says. Her parents help with her rent, but she’s got student loans, too. “Boston is expensive and college is expensive, so it’s just nice to have a little bit of money. If my parents are worried about tuition, the very least I can do is not have additional expenses while I’m in college.” Med school is a different story, though. She’ll probably keep her notes to herself. “I think it’s structured differently,” she says.