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When looking for online lecture notes, I notice that most of the time you have to be a student and login in using your institution information to get access.

Why would a professor not show the lecture notes freely for anyone who is interesting in learning?

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    – cag51
    Oct 18 at 17:13
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Surely 'cuz you're not paying the tuition for the class... To put it bluntly, that's what tuition is for: to give you access to class material and instructor time.

I doubt having coursework material password-protected is uniformly a decision of the instructor: certainly where I work my notes, assignments (including solutions), exams are on a university platform which is accessible only to students.

I ask my students NOT to distribute my notes because they're full of typos, contain images for which I have not sought permission to reproduce, and are just not ready for prime time. I would not want such notes to be publicly available, and I do not foresee making them available until I have thoroughly reviewed them.

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  • Also in tuition fee free places, teaching material is usually not openly available. Copyright is then the main concern. Oct 15 at 15:30
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    @Snijderfrey well the institution wants to protect its product, which is here the education service it provides. There are plenty of places where instructor upload course notes for free, but it's the choice of the instructor, not the institution. Oct 15 at 15:32
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    Yes, and the friendliness of the instructors comes with a risk if they use material others hold the copyright for. At our institute, a few years ago an instructor was sued for using an image in a lecture that then could be downloaded on the institute website (like most of the teaching material at that time). Eventually, it was an expensive experience, and certainly had the effect that the whole faculty has been very careful ever since with making anything freely available. Oct 15 at 15:57
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    @Snijderfrey may I ask in which country that happened? I heard of a case in the U.S. but only heard about one instance and I had assumed that this was very rare. I closed access to my notes as a result. That was about 6 years ago.
    – lamplamp
    Oct 15 at 22:48
  • @lamplamp That was in Germany. I would also think it is rare, but it certainly happens. If copyright holders never notice (probably this is what happens in most cases) or are not overkeen on enforcing their rights then nothing happens, obviously. Oct 16 at 12:15
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In my observation, this change is a recent epiphenomenon that is tied to the widespread organizational deployment of learning management systems (LMS).

Thirty years ago, course notes were not generally online, because even in leading universities the Internet hadn't taken hold sufficiently yet. You got your lecture notes on paper, typically by picking up handouts at the classroom door each lecture or by going to a university office and buying a cheaply bound booklet of such notes at the beginning of the semester.

Twenty years ago, it was easy to set up a course webpage and point students to it, but most universities had ad-hoc systems not designed for online course management. This meant that professors could stop worrying about handouts and start sticking a PDF online on a course webpage. The professor generally put that webpage together themselves, and restricting access to material they posted would take a lot of extra work. These was no real incentive for a professor to put in that effort, and thus a large volume of class notes became freely accessible to the general public as a side effect.

Class notes are only one part of the story, however, and a good LMS also helps a professor with managing and reporting assignments, tests, and grades (which can be a big benefit both to individual professors and to universities overall). In most systems, these materials are considered confidential information and must be protected. Thus, any material posted in an LMS is restricted by default. As a result a professor now needs to explicitly decide that they want to post material openly and take extra steps to do so, including considering all of the concerns that have been raised in other answers.

Bottom line: widespread freely accessible lecture notes were a temporary side effect of the technological transition to online course material.

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  • The modifier freely accessible seems to run the answer in a circle and does not really answer the question about access only for students enrolled in class versus those not enrolled. Unless for example you are perhaps implying that, in the transition, faculty "temporarily" forgot to remind students that the posted lecture notes came with copyright protections and/or that LMS systems during the transition were not sophisticated enough to recognize the difference between enrolled and not-enrolled students. Oct 19 at 13:03
  • @JeffreyJWeimer I'm not quite sure what you're getting at here, with the scare quote on "temporarily". Early in the transition, everything was very ad hoc and people simply weren't worrying about these things as much. I mean, who was going to try to make a business out of reselling a professor's sloppy PDF class notes, right? Twenty years later, it may seem nearly unbelievably naive for people to have thought this way, but the economics and social dynamics of the Internet were simply not the same then as they are now.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 19 at 14:06
  • The explanation is appreciated. Your final bold statement would be a better answer the OP's question when it would end with "Allowing it was likely an oversight at that time, and widespread, free access no longer exists because the commonly used tools to distribute lecture notes prohibit it by default." Oct 19 at 15:29
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In practice, the decisive questions for an instructor posting their notes online are:

  • Are you, as a writer, sufficiently proud of your own notes that you won't be embarrassed to see them circulate widely?

  • Do you have a personal website or care enough (and have the time) to build one? (Even the easiest options, like Github Pages, take half an hour or so of getting used to. As some commenters have noticed, it's much easier to just push the notes on your institution's learning management system, provided that you're used to that.)

  • Do you mind if the open availability of your notes will make it harder to publish them commercially as a book afterwards? (This is not a very serious issue in maths nowadays, as most publishers are fine with building on OA material, and some are even fine with the accepted manuscripts of books being OA. But it might be an issue in other disciplines.)

Zero's answer is not representative. All instructors I know have the right to freely distribute their notes; unlike patents, copyrights by regular faculty do not default to their institutions (I even recall this being explicit in American universities). Copyright issues around pictures and long quotes are at least theoretically relevant sometimes, but to my knowledge they aren't a decisive factors, as authors don't seem to care that much (I've seen my share of freely available or even OA lecture notes that, strictly speaking, are giving away what isn't theirs by quoting pages upon pages of textbooks).

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    I don't think you understood my answer correctly. I do not dispute that I still have copyright over my work, but i) I may not have proper permission to reproduce the work of others, ii) my institution does not prevent me from posting them on my own but as part of a course I go through a university website which is password protected, iii) other material complementary to the course is certainly password protected for various reasons, not the least of which is to avoid uncontrolled blanket access to previous exams and assignments. Oct 15 at 19:57
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    This is not what you said in your answer, though. Oct 15 at 20:01
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    well with due respect it seems it's exactly what I said... anyways... Oct 15 at 20:04
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    I read ZeroTH's answer first, then saw your "Zero's answer is not..." paragraph and thought "hmmm...this is clearly not referring to ZeroTheHero Oct 16 at 0:23
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    @ZeroTheHero: Let me be more precise. The first 2 paragraphs of your 3-paragraph answer are giving two motivations that, to my knowledge (I know at least a dozen people posting their lecture notes online, and have talked with a few of them about their experience), are marginal. Instructors do not typically care about paywalling their class, nor do they think of lecture notes in the same way as of assignment solutions. This is what I mean by "not representative". Your third paragraph is a more mainstream motivation, but that's not exactly a great hit rate for your answer :) Oct 16 at 23:51
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Where I've worked, making teaching materials available on the password-protected digital learning environment was compulsory by university policy, but making them available on the public internet was at the option of the individual faculty member. I never did make mine publicly available, because they contained third-party copyrighted material for which internal distribution was protected by the educational "fair dealing" exemption in UK copyright law, but public distribution would not have been.

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So in Germany, everyone else here is wrong.

The reason is Copyright.

The lecturers, as educators, enjoy a very broad and free exemption from copyright, and therefore can create their slides/handouts etc. without much thought to ask for permission for this graph or that figure. They simply see something they think would help student understand the topic and paste it in there (with proper citation mostly).

This exemption however, is limited to material that they share as part of an official course/seminar etc., as part of their job as educators. Sharing this - regularly copyright-violating - material outside of this narrow scope would leave them wide open to all the lawsuits and other trouble that come along with copyright. This is also why most of them absolutely don't care or even low-key encourage uploading the files elsewhere: because then it's not THEM who did the copyright violation but the uploading student.

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  • Germany is hardly the only place that has this problem.
    – joojaa
    Oct 18 at 14:11
  • @joojaa very likely, but it was the only one where I was certain that the other answers were wrong. But this copyright-exemption for teaching is pretty common in the west
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 18 at 15:42
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    Before you claim that everyone else is wrong, at least read everyone else’s answers.
    – Carsten S
    Oct 18 at 17:58
  • @CarstenS i dit. Scrolled down all of them (be mindful of the answer dates), and when I reached the text box at the bottom I started to type
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 19 at 14:22
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The reason seems obvious to me as a software engineer.

  1. Professors are provided with a learning management system (LMS). They are highly encouraged to post their lecture notes to the LMS. Usually no one is telling the professors they can not post content outside the LMS. However, if a student has to leave the LMS to get higher quality content (e.g., the "real" lecture notes are posted on other site) and quality is in the eye of the beholder: the professor should either post exactly the same content or a clearly inferior version outside the LMS. It is not a lot of work, but the professor will get at best 0 credit for it. (If the content is not clearly inferior the professor will be reprimanded for going outside the LMS.)
  2. The LMS could provide for free non-student accounts for reading lecture notes. Someone like me would have to engineer this process. Invariably, it would not work right - at least at first. Someone would have to pay me to do this work. Over time, people will become unhappy and want changes. Someone will have to pay me to keep on it. Why would the LMS commit to this?
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  • Atleast in our LMS it is just a checkbox away from public. But i generally kep them hidden because the copyright status of the data is often a bit questionable outside the university context. I would simple have to ask permission from many people.
    – joojaa
    Oct 18 at 11:58
  • @joojaa it works out to be the same thing. Even if the cost to you is minimal (checking the box and asking permission), it is work for nothing.
    – emory
    Oct 18 at 12:08
  • I agree to a degree. But then this is the same answer as @jakebeal is saying
    – joojaa
    Oct 18 at 12:11
  • For the record, I think that @emory is illustrating an important aspect of the question as well, once one assumes an LMS is involved.
    – jakebeal
    Oct 18 at 13:07
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UK-focused perspective: universities are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. I find it very hard to justify not sharing the notes these notes with the people who payed for it (ie making them generally accessible in the UK). So I think the answer is, that the uproar about this issue (taking taxpayer money and not sharing the thing which was produced using it) is not sufficiently high enough to put enough pressure on universities to share these notes.

I personally share my notes to whoever asks for it. I haven't made a website where I put it there to anyone who isn't even asking for it, but maybe I'll in the future.

A related post: How much money is spent on students' above their tuition fees in the UK?

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  • Ever since large student fees have been brought in UK universities heavily depend on them as the previously provided funding by the state for teaching was cut, so they cannot afford to offer stuff relating to teaching for free. That wealthy universities (your related question mentions Cambridge, but those are far and few in between) have other sources of income to spend on reaching is beyond the point. Universities share their results from research, so this is where the tax payer gets value for money. Oct 17 at 12:00
  • It seems to me that, taken to its logical conclusion, this line of argument suggests that textbooks written by UK academics (the academics doing the writing have been heavily subsidized by taxpayers) should be sold at cost if not freely available (at least in the UK). Oct 17 at 16:51
  • If their salary comes from the taxpayer while writing the book, then yes.
    – zabop
    Oct 17 at 19:41
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    I don’t entirely disagree (at least the uni students of this instructor should get those free) but I fear you and I are in the minority. Oct 17 at 20:06
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    To be honest, I'd be more than happy for the text book I wrote to be freely available. Unforuntately, I don't expect Pearson agrees. Oct 18 at 15:54

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