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Big business in students’ notes

Digital marketplace for classroom study guides is like ‘Airbnb of education’

Boston startup Flashnotes allows students to buy and sell study materials.
Boston startup Flashnotes allows students to buy and sell study materials.Flashnotes

What would college students pay to get their hands on the notes of straight-A classmates?

Boston textbook publisher Cengage Learning aims to find out by launching an online marketplace where students can sell lecture notes, exam study guides, and even video tutorials to their peers.

Billed by Cengage as "the Airbnb of education," the marketplace is the product of a new partnership between a traditional publisher trying to reinvent itself and a Boston technology startup called Flashnotes, which already has raised more than $6 million in venture funding for its Web business that allows students at more than 900 universities to buy and sell study materials.


"Flashnotes popped up in our research as we were thinking about new digital offerings, and we found thousands of students using the site," said Cengage chief executive Michael Hansen.

Yet note-taking for profit has many in academia worried about blurring the line between collaborating and cheating. The often fuzzy distinction was at the heart of a 2012 investigation of 125 Harvard University students who produced similar responses on a take-home final exam. In an episode that typified a broader debate in education, many said they had simply worked together — as their professor encouraged them to do throughout the term — but more than half were forced to withdraw after the school concluded they had gone too far.

"There is something a little unsavory about selling your notes and turning them into a commodity," said Craig R. Vasey, chair of the Committee on Teaching, Research, and Publication at the American Association of University Professors. "It seems to be at odds with the spirit of higher education."

Unlike Flashnotes, Cengage will allow professors to decide whether their students can sell notes on the company's new service. The exchange will be included in an existing online portal, MindTap, that Cengage offers to college professors for posting supplemental learning tools, such as news articles, video clips, and flash cards. Professors using MindTap will be able to activate or disable the function that lets students swap study help for money — and that can monitor the accuracy and integrity of the materials.


The Cengage service is scheduled to roll out in full in January. It is the company's first big digital initiative since emerging from a bankruptcy reorganization in April, relocating to Boston, and shifting to publishing more electronic educational products.

On Flashnotes, most documents sell for less than $10, though help with a particularly dreaded test or a notoriously tough professor can fetch more. A 23-page study guide for the final in a management course at Boston University sold on Flashnotes for $73 in May.

Under the terms of the partnership, Flashnotes and Cengage will split 30 percent of the proceeds of each sale, with the student sellers keeping 70 percent.

In most cases, the market for each study guide is confined to students in a single course at a particular college, though some student sellers market their materials as useful to a broader audience.

Study groups among students have been common for a long time, and Flashnotes is not the only tech company to take the age-old idea online and charge money for it. But Flashnotes appears to be among the most prominent players in the niche market.

It acquired a competitor called NoteUtopia last summer and bought another, Moolaguides, in March. The partnership with Cengage includes a multimillion-dollar investment round led by the publisher, though the companies declined to disclose the exact amount.


Flashnotes cofounder Mike Matousek said his company does not permit the sale of test answers, essays, or homework, and uses a keyword screening algorithm to flag content that could be considered cheating. In addition, buyers can report materials that breach ethical standards set by their schools or instructors.

Violators are banned from the site, Matousek said.

Yet Flashnotes has had trouble policing one aspect of its business. The site currently lists dozens of five-star reviews of study guides from students who appear to be fictitious — apparently an effort by sellers to boost interest in their notes. Two professors at Northeastern University told the Globe they did not recognize the names of students who supposedly purchased notes for their classes, and dozens of reviewers who claimed to be students at Boston University and Boston College could not be found in school directories.

In some cases, the posts were made in the names of celebrities. At least two posters listed themselves as attending both Boston College and BU.

After being notified of the suspicious postings by the Globe, Flashnotes said a check it conducted Tuesday turned up about 300 fake ratings, which the company said represented less than 1 percent of all reviews on the site.

When the sales are legitimate, good study habits can turn into extra income for high achievers. Zack Brittingham, a senior majoring in behavioral neuroscience at Northeastern University, said he pocketed between $400 and $500 last spring semester by selling study guides on Flashnotes.


"I always take really good notes for my classes, so I figured I might as well start uploading them and see if anything happens," he said.

Brittingham acknowledged it was "really weird" sitting in class among paying customers at first, but said he ultimately embraced his status as a go-to resource for his peers. Flashnotes noticed Brittingham's emergence, too, and asked him to work as a campus ambassador.

The star of the Flashnotes universe is Tony Berardi, a 2012 graduate of Florida State University who has earned almost $12,000 selling notes on the site. Though he's no longer a student, Berardi still hawks his notes and study guides from his classes in exercise physiology, and so far has made more than 3,700 sales.

He said instructors are increasingly discouraging the use of online help tools after a student in the biochemistry department posted an entire test on Facebook.

"But from what I see, there's nothing wrong with students selling study guides," Berardi said. "It's the same thing as a university selling a textbook. That's how I see it."

By the letter of many academic codes, Berardi is right, said Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has researched ethical issues triggered by digital media. Problems arise when legitimate help from fellow students allows some to become lazy, he suggested.


"The question is, 'What are you in school for? What are your educational goals and what are your broader life goals?' " Gardner said. "If you want to learn from interactions with the teacher, with other students, from reading original texts and doing original research, then you would not rely much on such aids, even if they are readily available."

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.