Tar Heel Tattler - November 2006

Prof can't make students pay more than attention
By Maggie Frank

Back in the day, a college student who skipped class but cared about what he had missed borrowed a classmate’s notes. A few beers or bucks might change hands, and everybody was happy. Not so this fall when N.C. State University professor Robert Schrag decided to offer competition. He posted audio files of lectures for his communications and technology class online — for a $2.50 fee.

Schrag, who has been teaching at State 24 years, got only $1 of it. The rest went to the Web site, Franklin, Tenn.-based Independent Music Online, which mostly sells music recorded by unsigned performers. For him, it is the principle. “Not giving it away says, ‘Yes, there is value attached to what you do.’” After all, he says, engineering professors routinely cash in on their work, and he had the blessing of his department head.

But students who oppose the fee say they’re standing on principle, too. They paid for the lectures — whether they attend class or not — with their tuition: $4,784 a year for full-time North Carolina residents and $16,982 for out-of-state students. The dispute became a cause célèbre for the Technician, State’s student newspaper.

In mid-September, after having made a total of $12, Schrag removed the lectures at the university’s request. Administrators cited a “conflict of interest,” though neither the professor nor university spokesman Keith Nichols could identify it. A few days later, Schrag and State compromised. He could repost the lectures for sale on Independent Music’s site but had to provide them free on a password-protected N.C. State Web site, where only the 157 students in the class can access them. “It’s not a case of we don’t want faculty members doing this,” Nichols says. “We want to make sure that when they do it that it’s been properly vetted.”

Schrag says he feels no ill will. In fact, he welcomes being a test case. It could even become part of a paper he’s writing, The Reimagining of Information Technology in the University of the 21st Century.

State likely will have to continue to address professors’ enthusiasm for technology. The Technician reported that Tom Hoban, who teaches a sociology course over the Internet, has been using the social-network juggernaut MySpace.com as an official class Web site, where he posts notes and student work and hosts class discussions. At least there won’t be a tuition issue: The info is free and available — through the “add a friend” feature — to anyone Hoban grants access.