Virtual study group balances sharing information and copyright issues

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Last semester Tank Chen would have spent the hours before a big midterm holed up in the library scanning heavy textbooks for formulas and definitions to cram. While the extra research helped, it also required hours of dogged commitment which was hard to muster.
Now things are a little different.
Chen logs onto an online forum to find a notes summary posted by a student taking the same course at a different university and has a lot more time to commit the information to memory.
The fourth-year student at Carleton University in Ottawa is one of the pioneers using UniversityJunction.com.
Called an academic Facebook of sorts, the site is a cross between an online note swap and a virtual discussion group.
"It makes it a lot easier," said 22-year-old Chen, who logs onto the free site about three times a week.
"I used to do a lot of research on my own. I found that it would consume a lot of time," said Chen. "This is a one-stop shop."
The site, which has been online since mid-October, was set up by a handful of students from universities across Canada and the U.S. to fill a perceived void in academic resources for undergraduate students.
"It's a site where students can meet, connect and share," said 28-year-old Alan Powell, one of the site's co-founders.
While the concept seems simple, the site is also walking a fine line between information sharing and copyright infringement.
Students are allowed to share their original work, but the site runs the risk of breaking copyright if a professor's notes are transcribed verbatim, for example, or if the answers to a test that's yet to be taken across the country are posted online.
But those behind the site said they haven't had any issues so far.
"The biggest problem we have to deal with is the image that sharing information and collaboration is a bad thing," said Powell. "If you're engaged in your curriculum you're going to do better. It's combating that image."
The site runs largely on an honour system, with its users responsible for upholding academic policies at their universities and colleges.
Not seeking to be an all-out hub for crib notes, Powell said the site focuses on helping students to study and move forward with academic projects.
"We bring people and information together," he said, adding that the site wants to steer clear of legal infringements or violations of professors' intellectual property rights.
But there are a few safeguards in place nonetheless.
The site has a small group of employees dedicated to monitoring and flagging information of concern. If anything is thought to be unethical, or a blatant breach of copyright, the moderators take action by deleting offending posts and removing repeat offenders.
Students using the site log on to see which other campuses offer the same courses as theirs before checking out what resources they can share with others studying similar material. With 12,000 users registered already, the project hopes to reach 160 universities by the end of the year.
Even as it expands, the site remains free to use and survives on advertising dollars and online textbook sales. According to Powell, the lack of a fee helps UniversityJunction stand out as an ethical alternative to the dubious webpages offering to write essays and complete assignments for cash.
While the site seems to have its bases covered, experts say there's always risk when it comes to virtual learning.
"There could be a sharing of examination information. That's the danger of the Internet," said Paul Stortz, a professor at the University of Calgary who is an expert on communications and culture.
Stortz added that in the case of UniversityJunction, any breaches of individual university policies would have to be dealt with on a course-by-course basis.
The presence of the site, however, is just another indication of a generational push with more students migrating towards virtual learning environments, said Stortz.
As long as the knowledge shared is treated in a judicious and respectful way, students getting together for an academic discussion, either physically or via the Internet, is always a good thing, he said.
"Students can find a forum of like-minded people going through a very stressful part of their lives," he said. "All of that is really, really good."

Organizations: Carleton University, University of Calgary

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, U.S.

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