I am a university student and have recently found out how much easier it is to use my smart phone to take snapshots of notes professors write on the blackboard during lectures (since I am quite bad at understanding and writing at the same time, it is very useful).

To make sure the professors do not have problems with this, I asked each of them before starting to take pictures. They all had the same response: they are fine with it, as long as I do not make the shots publicly available. Of course, I have no intention of doing so. However, it made me think: why do professors emphasise this? All of the material is already public, tens of different lecture notes exist, some of the profs even made their own lecture notes freely downloadable for anybody.

So my questions are:

  • How could bad quality pictures of the blackboard cause any harm to them?
  • Why would it make a difference if I copied the content into my notebook or typed it in word by word and published that? (I have never heard any professors asking the students not to upload the notes, they write themselves during the lecture.)
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    Suppose you ask a book author: "Is it OK if i make a Xerox copy of your book?" What do you think they will say? Suppose you go to a music performance, and you ask them: "is it OK if I make a video of the performance on my phone?" What do you think they will say?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 1:02
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    @GEdgar The book comparison doesn't work because you're not expected to make copies of books, whereas you are expected to copy down notes from the board. If I asked an author "Is it OK if I make a Xerox copy of your book?" they'd say no, whereas the answer to "Is it OK if I make a Xerox-like copy of your blackboard notes" was "Yes but for personal use only." Completely different situation. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 8:22
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    As an aside, it seems to be increasingly common that lecturers write up their lecture notes in textbook form, and publish them (accessible to everyone) on their personal website.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 8:43
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    I'm surprised no one has mentioned this yet but, it could also be that they don't want photos of themselves/others that might incidentally be in the frame to be published without the consent of those pictured. I could imagine a handful of ways that could be abused or might make others uncomfortable.
    – thanby
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 10:36
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    @GEdgar "Suppose you go to a music performance, and you ask them: "is it OK if I make a video of the performance on my phone?" What do you think they will say?" -- It depends on the band, but there are quite a number of them (admittedly mainly smaller ones) that not only allow this, but actively encourage it.
    – hvd
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 12:13

12 Answers 12


The scribblings a professor writes on the board during a lecture represent the lowest-quality type of content that that professor will ever present in public: handwritten, hastily created under time pressure and at a time of high cognitive load, messy, unchecked, and prone to error. On the other hand, professors, like any other professionals, will much prefer to be judged by the highest-quality content that they produce, e.g., their research papers, which are carefully crafted over a long period of focus and concentration, digitally typeset, polished repeatedly, and double- and triple-checked for accuracy. So, to the extent that a professor gets to control which of the content they produced gets publicly released, they will almost never voluntarily consent to the release of the low-quality content.

An analogy that occurs to me is that of a movie actor: for precisely the same reason as I described above, actors prefer for the public to form its opinion of them through their movies, and not through a paparazzi photo of them taken while they were out shopping for groceries, wearing disheveled clothes, no make-up, a sloppy hairdo etc. So, if you don't want to be like a paparazzi, you will respect the wishes of your professor and not publicly post photos of their blackboard writings.

Edit: I feel a need to clarify my remark about "lowest-quality type of content" and "hastily created [...] messy, unchecked, and prone to error". It seems that some people are reading this as a description of some kind of unprofessional professor who comes to class unprepared, delivers a poor quality lecture, then out of insecurity and fear of having their poor lecturing skills exposed publicly, refuses to allow pictures of their blackboard posted online. That is not quite what I meant (or at least is only one possible scenario covered by my answer). I was talking much more generally about any professor, whether excellent or poor, who comes to class, well-prepared or not, and delivers a lecture, which may be an excellent one, and then, for completely legitimate and rational reasons and not out of any insecurity, guilt, or shame, objects to having pictures of their blackboard posted online.

Why would they object if their lecture is so good? Some have asked. The logic behind this is that the blackboard scribblings, even of an excellent and well-prepared professor, will still be a type of content that was created during a very short amount of time (the time of the lecture), while the professor is busy doing several other things at the same time (talking to the class, figuring out the details of the math or whatever it is they are writing on the board, consulting their notes, keeping track of time, etc.), is under the psychological pressure of being watched by a large group of people (many people find this a stressful situation), and has no time or cognitive resources available to detect or correct small errors that may be introduced inadvertently, no matter how carefully prepared one is. So, in a purely relative comparison between this content and other kinds of content that the same professor creates (e.g., research papers, which as I've said are thoughtfully prepared over many months), blackboard scribblings are relatively speaking a low quality content. It is simply an unfair competition: two different kinds of content, two different quality standards, and for the reasons I explained, many professors quite reasonably prefer to have only one of the two types be posted publicly online.

Finally, note that all of this is not at all at odds with the fact that the blackboard writing can still be good or even excellent in the context of the lecture in which it is performed.

  • 29
    @DanRomik Usually because of the invasion of privacy, actually. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 8:24
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    @Ooker So when a picture of a blackboard, showing a grave miscalculation, accidentally done by a maths professor in class, appears on Facebook, accompanied by a snarky comment about the professor's assumed inability of algebra, you expect that no one will share it and make fun of it, because "[e]verybody knows that the lecture shouldn't be judged strict as other products"? How can I regain your trust in humanity? ;-)
    – Dubu
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 8:45
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    @Ooker I was thinking of something in the range of "2 + 2 = 5", obvious to everyone. (Except the writer. It is terribly hard to see such mistakes if you're writing on a black-/whiteboard in large letters.) Eventually, students would probably point out such an error (depending on the prof) and it would be corrected, but someone could have made a picture before.
    – Dubu
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 8:59
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    @Ooker, I doubt that the professor has such specific scenarios in mind. I think it's more of a case of caution in the face of uncertainty. Students and social media mix in unexpected ways, and when the damage is done, there's no going back. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 11:09
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    Yes, it's not about a specific scenario or worrying that I'll write 2+2=5, it's the principle of the thing. Just like anyone else, I want to present to the world the most favorable image of myself, and @Ooker, I'm sure you do as well. For example, I see you selected a certain photo of yourself as your Twitter avatar, and not a different, much worse photo. Similarly, on the professional level, I am going to endorse the release online of certain materials I created (my papers), but not other materials (blackboard writings, and a poem I wrote when I was in the third grade). Simple as that.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:03

Several explanations are possible:

  • Their blackboard scribblings are their copyrighted material, so they have every right to restrict distribution. I.e., written "for my students only".
  • What ends up on the blackboard is just a part of the class, explanations, questions and answers, on-the-fly examples, reiteration of a missed point is an integral part of teaching. All that doesn't show up, so the result isn't really complete, and probably less than useful on its own.
  • They don't want to get exposed publicly with stuff somewhat sloppily written on-the-fly, badly organized, with little (or no) possibility of checking/editing, and (probably worse) no careful citing of sources.
  • They are secretly writing a textbook, and don't want to get their scoop stolen by a "pirate blackboard" version on the 'net ;-)
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    Could the last point really happen? I mean, yes, it can be in theory, but I don't think a collection of pictures taken from the board could ever replace a book. And if they really need to be secret, then they won't let the students take pictures at the first time.
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 6:25
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    @Ooker, see the smiley...
    – vonbrand
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 9:27
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    @Oooker probably not in math or science, but in the humanities where content in classes is much less standardized, this perhaps might be more of a concern. Still doubtful. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 22:57
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    @Ooker In mathematics I have known many professors to base their books off of their lectures, or to give lectures based off of tenative drafts of a book. The book is meant to be educational and used in classes, so it makes sense to field test it and see how it goes. A significant proportion of my math texts contain forwards by the author mentioning the classes that were taught with early versions of the text, and thanking the classes (sometimes even specific students) for their feedback and help in improving the book. Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 2:11
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    When I began teaching, point #3 would have been the biggest reason I wouldn't have wanted my students to publish images of my blackboards. After 15 years of teaching I got over that insecurity because my preparation is much better. Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 15:50

I think your question a bit naïve. Once you find yourself in the same situation as your professors, the answer will be obvious.

Just imagine that a junior student comes to you and asks you for some help, say, with a difficult math problem. Would you help him? I suppose you would. Most people would if they have the time and expertise. You'd spend an hour with him, hopefully solve the problem and explain the solution to him.

Now imagine that the same student tells you that he is going to publish all the notes and scribblings you make while you are working together on this problem. Anyone will be able to find them if they search for your name. It will be available on the internet, likely forever. You will have no control over it whatsoever, as you aren't even the one who published them. You won't be able to correct it if you find a mistake. It will contribute against your professional reputation, but if some stranger criticizes the notes, calls them wrong or hard to understand and useless, you will not have a chance to defend, clarify or correct them. It is not at all the same as when you were explaining the solution to your friend and you were having a discussion with him.

Would you still help this student if you knew he was going to publish the whole discussion? Maybe you wouldn't. Or maybe you would but you would only agree to publishing the notes if you get the chance to carefully correct and polish them, to make sure it is suitable for a general audience with whom you cannot engage interactively, and that you would have some control over where and how the notes get published so you can update them in the future if necessary. Of course preparing these notes is going to take a lot more time than the one hour discussion you'd need to explain the solution to just this one student. So you might easily decide that you don't have the time for such an endeavour.

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    +1 ... and those are also good reasons for not disclosing real names when one publish half-thought answers in sites like SE :) Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 3:28
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    I would say that there is a risk to have them published without permission, but it's not large. No one wants to go to page 10 of Google.
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 6:24
  • "Just imagine that a junior student comes to you and asks you for some help" -- and it would be great if they brought a picture of my blackboard! Did I miswrite or they misread?
    – Raphael
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 23:03
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    @Raphael That's not public sharing though.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 7:51

As a professor, I want the class experience to be dynamic. If students had access to the content on the board, they might think it unnecessary to show up.

Also, writing notes results in a higher retention of information than just reading them (or typing them). http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

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    Dynamism is critical, finding a way to "add value" beyond static books or PDFs. Pre-fabbed overheads, or pre-determined notes to be copied onto a black/white-board, tend to dampen that, despite the possibility of huge live audio supplements, which (bad-miraculously) many students seem to disregard and discard. But/and the students leap to presumptive conclusions about the "freshness" of the audio, too, while being to disregard it. Thus, I actually tend to think in terms of a sort of (highly informed, hopefully expert, hopefully fluid) improvisation and responsiveness... Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 23:59
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    If your lectures truly add value to the slides, then why are you afraid of students not showing up?
    – Livings
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 7:14
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    @Livings I personally am OK with students taking photos of the board. I minimize time lecturing and don't show much in terms of slides in class. Board information is usually answers to exercises that the groups do in class. Plenty of students will find any justification not to come, but some might be more motivated if all the info is not available outside. Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 12:29
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    they might think it unnecessary to show up — So let them not show up. What's the problem?
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 13:46
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    @JeffE Why not ask that question formally so you can get answers from the community? Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 15:13

In addition to the reasons given in the other answers, your professors will probably teach the same class again in a year or two and they don't want the next batch of students to have access to all the notes. There are good reasons for this:

Firstly, students could use past lecture notes to cheat on problem sets and exams. This could happen because next year the professor switches the example he or she went over in class with a homework problem. Or the professor might go over solutions to homework in class.

Secondly, if students have access to the lecture notes from previous years, they might decide not to come to class (or come and not pay attention). The usual student reasoning is ``I don't need to go to class, because I have access to all the information already.'' Unfortunately, those students end up doing poorly, because lecture notes don't adequately compensate for not coming to class. So sharing lecture notes with the next batch of students can be doing them a disservice.

  • 9
    Professors do not need to have a reason, but both of the reasons you gave are bad.
    – emory
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:32
  • @emory Right, I would downvote if I had the reputation for that. The question is about taking photographs vs making notes on paper, while none of the points of this answer make a difference here. Both points would apply equally to notes taken on paper.
    – anderas
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:53
  • Many universities have policies against posting written notes on the internet or selling copies of written notes. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 14:27
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    There are good reasons for this — Maybe so, but you haven't given any. College students are adults; if they want to rob themselves of the education they've paid for, that's their right.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 16:23
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    @emory why bad? I have seen a lecturer taught with PowerPoint. She moved the slides so fast that no one can script it down, and she refused to give the slides to students for this exact reasons.
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 6:32

One of the ways I find it helpful to think about questions like this is to ask "What's the benefit of the reverse happening?" Lets say that the professor not only allows you to take a photograph of the notes, but to share them online. What benefit is there?

Even leaving aside things like errors propagating through the notes, allowing the notes to exist online just lets a lesser form of their lecture notes (the blackboard, absent any context or the lecture itself) out into the world. What purpose does that serve? Who really benefits from it?

There are numerous downsides to it (as other people have discussed), and the upsides are pretty fleeting - at best, you could argue that the current class would be freed from taking notes, but many people prefer to take notes, and this creates a dependence that your camera, picture taking skills, and hosting will always be available and adequate to their needs.

Basically, ask yourself: "Why should they?"


I agree that, as in other answers and comments, faculty might not want "unedited, unengineered, live" performances to be recorded and exist forever on the introwebs.

At the same time, the "added value" (supposedly beyond books, Wiki, on-line stuff, even my own on-line notes produced for the very class itself) I aim to provide is something (I fancy...) cannot be captured by just "screen capture" of the blackboard, any more than a video without audio of a stage play would "be the play". Ok, so then a video+audio recording (I think they call these "movies") would maybe capture everything... just as movies do. Or video DVDs of orchestras playing music, as though that might substitute for "going to a concert".

In many ways, these substitutes are excellent. Cheaper, for sure. So one should ask about in what way, if any, they lack. That is, instead of worrying so much about prohibition of "pirated" videos of my lectures, I should ask myself what, if anything, I'm offering that these recordings don't capture...

Answer: not so much that very many people would care about. ("Oh, those silly people...")

For such reasons, I refused to be video-taped giving some popular courses of mine some years ago, when the university did not agree to give me sufficient IP (intellectual property) rights to not have my recordings replace me in my job... :)

The relevance of this ranting to the question is that many professors reasonably worry (whether or not they're good teachers at various levels) that their university or department will seek to replace them with cheap simulacra... possibly even just recordings of themselves... as I do suspect... and even tangentially related things are instinctively resisted, even if they're almost non-sequiturs.

In particular, unlike what even bad actors can expect, there are no "residuals" for replays of math videos. Maybe in the future. For the moment, "tenure" is the closest thing? :)


Any and all materials produced in a lecture are covered by copyright, intellectual property, and student conduct/academic integrity policies.

Materials for students available in university classes are not 'public' materials, and distribution of materials outside of the classroom goes against the policy, and may/may not be subjugated to copyright infringement law. Otherwise, why go to university if you get the education for free?

Technically, notes and other materials from units should not be reposted in any manner 'to help the next student' in accordance with these policies. It's a very grey area, however.

To give an example of when it happens and it's not so grey, I found an assessment of mine earlier this year (word for word, including tips on how to do the assessment well, and what the assessment marking criteria is) all over paid essay writing websites, with attached codes pertaining to the subject of my unit.

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    There are various ways to get a free college education, but simply looking at photos of blackboards is hardly going to be effective, it seems to me.
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 5:21
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    From my university days, I remember studying the Central Limit Theorem. Are you saying that I can not use it anymore because it was my professor's intellectual property. I am already in enough trouble as it is by using grammar I learned in English class.
    – emory
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:34
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    Are you saying that I can not use it anymore because it was my professor's intellectual property — Now you're just being silly. Of course you can use the ideas presented in your professors' lectures; ideas cannot be copyrighted. But you can't post video of their lectures to YouTube; expression of those ideas is copyrighted.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 16:20

One additional point I haven't noticed above: at certain institutions (including mine), the copyright of the professors' teaching materials (including, strictly, their writing) does not solely belong to them: it belongs to the institution as well.

The logic behind this is as follows: the university pays the professor to create course material. However, the course itself (and the material) belongs to the university. The expression of that material depends on the professor, so they have a say in its use (I believe "performance rights" is the phrase). However, it remains the university's material.

This also explains why nobody worries about a student making open their notes on the course: the student's notes are their interpretation of the material, not that which was produced as a work for hire.

  • the copyright of the professors' teaching materials (including, strictly, their writing) does not solely belong to them: it belongs to the institution as well. -1, totally false AFAIK
    – user1482
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 1:39
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    @Ben Ian says this about "certain institutions, including mine" - are you asserting that this is not true at any institution, even Ian's? Hard to see how you could know that.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 2:12
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    Whilst I cannot find a public link to my own institution's policy, it is similar to this policy from the University of Glasgow. Note the quote "The University owns IP generated by University staff in the course of or incidental to their employment, including teaching or university materials."
    – Ian
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 8:51

This is not a comprehensive answer, but it's too long for a comment. There are many possible reasons why professors would say this, but the one that I suspect is the most important is the following.

Many professors, as well as the schools that employ them, want to maintain the fiction that lecturing is a reasonable method of instruction in the year 2015. Lecturing originated in an era when books were too expensive for most individuals to own, so professors would read the book out loud, and students would copy down the words with a quill pen in order to have their own copy. This is a silly thing to do in 2015, and empirical evidence shows that for a variety of subjects, lecturing is not an effective way to teach, compared to the alternatives: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111 .

The trouble is that it would be inconvenient for professors and their employers to admit this. At big schools, it's very cost-effective to herd 300 students into an auditorium to watch a professor give a canned powerpoint presentation. Students also tend to uncritically accept lecturing as the normal mode of instruction, and often they dislike the alternatives, which would force them to prepare for class, play an active role, or risk having other people see them be wrong about something. And for professors, it's easy to deliver the same canned lecture year after year. "We pretend to teach, you pretend to learn."

If professors who use lecturing as their sole mode of instruction allowed their lectures to be posted for free on the internet, they would encounter an existential crisis. There would be no reason for them to keep showing up in person, semester after semester, and there would be no reason for their students to show up for class.

  • 3
    Yet many professors post lecture slides on the Internet, and as far as I know this practice has not led to any "existential crisis."
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 2:08
  • @ff524: Good point, but here are two things to consider: (1) We may have already had the existential crisis, but we go on pretending that we haven't, because it's convenient for all concerned -- an "emperor's new clothes" scenario. (2) Do you know that the professors you refer to use lecturing as their sole mode of instruction?
    – user1482
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 4:24
  • @ff524 It is actually slowly eroding attendance yes. Anyway i would love to do inverted classroon stuff but students want time wasting lectures. Because it does not demand them to participate.
    – joojaa
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 8:04
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    "Lecturing originated in an era when books were too expensive for most individuals to own" -- considering the ridiculous pricing of textbooks maybe that era will be returning.
    – KCd
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 2:30
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    want to maintain the fiction that lecturing is a reasonable method of instruction in the year 2015 — That's because lecturing is a reasonable method of instruction in the year 2015. (It's not the only reasonable method, of course.) Over the last decade, I've posted about a thousand pages of lecture notes and other course materials, and about a hundred hours of lecture videos, all freely accessible on the internet. Nevertheless, most of my students still come to class. The trick is not to deliver the same canned lecture year after year.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 13:44

First, thanks for having the courtesy to ask for permission.

I think there are a couple of other things to consider:

  1. Since all the professors answered the same way, there may be a department or university policy regarding posting content online.

  2. "Harm" is relative to the individual and the situation. It could be financial, artistic, or social. At the end of the day, the content belongs to the professor and the university and they determine the usage.

  3. Class notes are your interpretation of the knowledge disseminated in class. They are meant for personal use. When you post them online, veracity and/or plagiarism become your responsibility.


It seems that they do not want to be held to any mistakes, accidental plagiarism or misattribution, or inadequate explanations that they wrote during class.

Also, they may view publishing itself as a process of 'quality control' that lecture doesn't offer. Also in some fields there is a fear of being 'beaten to the punch' if something you are working on is made available before it is complete. Ideas are intellectual property and there is a fear of that property being stolen or unfairly adopted. Publication leaves a paper trail to resolve any potential disputes, so they tend to be avoided all together.

  • 1
    Would you not say that the ideas shared in a classroom are being openly shared to the people in the classroom? Are there really classrooms where there are restrictions on the use or sharing of ideas learned in class?
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 5:25
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    Undergraduate lectures are rarely at the bleeding edge of current research so I don't think your second paragraph really applies. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 8:25
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    IOW, if Professor Z misexplains a theorem in class and I apply the theorem as incorrectly explained on an exam and lose marks, I should suffer the penalty in silence. The second paragraph is complete rubbish. My time stamped images of Professor Z's blackboard are just further proof of Professor Z's timeline.
    – emory
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:37
  • Ideas are intellectual property — No. They are not. The expression of ideas is intellectual property.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 16:24

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