Almost every University of Waterloo student has experienced the intense discomfort of an unanswered request for a student notetaker.
Usually, students enrolled in a course where a classmate has requested notes through AccessAbility services will receive an email asking for volunteer notetakers. In some cases, professors will also post the request to Learn or make an announcement at the beginning of a class.
In my experience, the requests frequently go unanswered, sometimes prompting AccessAbility Services or professors to send out additional appeals. Still, these requests often remain unfulfilled. As someone who needs notes in several of my classes each term, the low rate of volunteer notetakers has left me without important academic accommodations.
Part of the issue is that notetaking at UW is unpaid. Rather than compensating students for their labour, the university expects students to provide disability support to their peers for free. But without sufficient remuneration, too few students are motivated to produce these resources, leaving too many others unsupported.
The idea of paying student note takers is not new. Students at universities across Canada and the United States receive monetary compensation for their labour at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The rate of pay at different universities varies significantly, with some schools, such as the University of Calgary, offering an hourly rate, and others offering a term stipend (sometimes below the minimum wage).
Additionally, some schools allow students not enrolled in a class to take notes for that class, provided they have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter to understand and translate the lectures. This practice creates more paid opportunities for students and increases the likelihood that students in need will receive sufficient notes.
Regardless of the differences in specific policy, these schools pay students for their labour, provide additional (and accessible) job opportunities on campus, and ensure more frequent, higher quality notes for students in need.
At UW, where payment has yet to be introduced despite the unmistakable need, some professors find individual solutions to incentivize notetaking and reward students for their labour.
In one of my psychology classes, the professor offered a three per cent bonus to any student who provided consistent, high-quality notes throughout the term.
The approach worked — I received clear, informative notes, uploaded just a day or two after the lectures each week.
However, the psychology class was on the larger side, meaning there were more potential candidates for this offer. In smaller classes, there is a higher chance no student will take the offer — at least not without a higher bonus.
Additionally, this approach privileges students with the ability to take good quality notes and disadvantages students like me, who require the accommodation. I would love to take notes in exchange for bonus marks, but I sometimes struggle to take notes just for myself, potentially disqualifying me from accessing the extra credit opportunity.
Given the choice between no notes and my classmates receiving higher grades, I will always pick the notes — and I’m happy for my classmates to be rewarded for their efforts. However, making extra credit inaccessible to some students seems unfair and potentially discriminatory.
Another approach is to turn the creation and provision of high quality class notes into an assignment. In several of my English courses, students have been divided into groups of three to five, with each group responsible for producing notes for several classes during the year.
Within the groups, students can take on responsibility based on their individual abilities, with some students recording notes during class and others editing the notes before uploading them. Usually, my professors have also instructed the students in the editing role to add relevant links and images, enriching the class notes. The editors could also be responsible for developing study materials related to the class content, such as practice exam questions or putting together Quizlets with key terms.
Another benefit to the class notes assignment is that students unable to attend a specific class will be able to catch up on the material more easily. Additionally, because the assignment is marked, students are likely to invest more effort, resulting in good quality notes.
However, turning class notes into an assignment is not always possible. In some cases, the syllabus is not flexible enough to include the assignment; in others, professors may not be willing to introduce this assignment, whether there could be room on the syllabus or not.
Ultimately, no individual solution will entirely solve the issue at hand — offering disability accommodations based on students’ willingness to perform unpaid labour is both unethical and ineffective. Without change, the provision of class notes will be an exploitative and inadequate system.
Admittedly, even payment for notetakers may not always result in sufficient notes. Class notes are just one of many academic accommodations in which UW should invest more funding and effort. Others include requiring professors to post all class materials, such as lecture slides and discussion questions, and requiring more exceptions in classes where attendance is marked, such as allowing students to miss a certain number of classes without documentation before receiving a penalty.
Even so, paying student notetakers is an important first step toward providing effective disability accommodations and compensating students for their labour.