Students registered with Accessibility Services (AS) require volunteer note-takers to provide them with notes that they cannot attain on their own. Based on a March 8 announcement from the volunteer note-taker program, over 200 courses at UTM currently lack note-takers, which has led AS to seek volunteer course auditors to take notes in addition to regular volunteer note-takers.

According to students and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), many courses with registered volunteer note-takers have ended up with incomplete and/or low-quality notes, proving to be an issue for these students who rely on the program to have a complete set of notes for their courses.

What’s the volunteer note-taker program? 

U of T’s volunteer note-taker programs — which run on each campus — aim to provide notes to students who are registered with AS. The AS oversees accommodations for students with a variety of disabilities, including sensory disabilities like hearing loss, physical and ongoing medical conditions, mental health conditions, neurological disabilities, and temporary disabilities such as a broken arm. 

Students registered with AS provide medical documentation to demonstrate their disability, and although they’re still expected to attend class regularly and take notes to the best of their ability, they may face circumstances in which they cannot take adequate notes or cannot attend class. Volunteer note-takers can help them receive a complete set of notes for a course. 

Volunteer note-takers submit their notes to a “note-taker database.” The UTM note-taker training on Quercus encourages multiple volunteers to submit notes for a single course so that students receiving them have the option to select the notes that best correspond to their note-taking style preferences. Having multiple notetakers for a course also ensures that students still receive notes even if one note-taker is unable to attend a given class. 

Volunteer note-takers who provide at least 80 per cent of the course notes for at least two half-credit courses or one full-credit course during an academic year are eligible to receive a Co-Curricular Record (CCR) notation on their transcript. 

The current training for volunteer note-takers involves watching five training videos on note-taking, reviewing documents and videos that outline four different note-taking methods, and reviewing articles — all of which U of T provides on the Quercus page. Volunteer note-takers must watch these training videos and receive a 100 per cent on the “note-taking training quiz” in order to be eligible to receive a CCR notation. 

“Hit or miss”

On March 8, the UTM AS Note-taker Training Program Quercus page posted an announcement emphasizing the need for volunteer note-takers in 230 winter term courses at UTM alone. 

The program, which usually only accepts notes from students registered in a course for credit, is now also accepting course auditors to make up for the lack of volunteer note-takers. Volunteer course auditors attend the lectures of a course they’re not registered for to take and provide notes to students who require them. Those auditors can receive CCR recognition. 

A student The Varsity talked to about the announcement also noted receiving low-quality or incomplete notes through the database. Manahil (Mani) Khan — a second-year UTM student specializing in molecular biology and minoring in chemistry — described the notes provided by volunteer note-takers as “hit or miss.” In an interview with The Varsity, Khan said that she registered for the note-taker service for two courses during the summer semester and for four courses she took during the fall semester. 

Khan said she only used the notes provided for two of those six courses. She told The Varsity that the notes for the rest of the courses were of poor quality. Many of the notes consisted of annotations on lecture slides without adequate explanations of what happened during the lecture. In one of her courses, the note-taker stopped providing notes close to the second term test, and Khan ended up having to ask her peers for notes. Many of the notes that Khan received were submitted very late, weeks after a lecture.

In a statement to The Varsity, Heather Kelly — executive director, Student Life Programs & Services — wrote that students are encouraged to contact Accessibility Services about the quality or content of notes they’ve received. 

If there are no note-takers for a course, the university provides students with a list of alternatives that include receiving a Livescribe pen — which includes a built-in microphone to record as well as a camera that takes pictures of notes as they’re written — recording the lecture using their own device with permission from the instructor, or accessing archived notes from previous years.

Computerized note-taking is a similar but separate program in which a paid note-taker is hired to take notes on behalf of a student. This accommodation is only available for students who are “unable to take notes themselves due to disability-related reasons,” according to Kelly. 

Making the system better

At the UTMSU’s annual general meeting, UTMSU President Gulfy Bekbossynova advocated for paid note-taker positions to replace the current volunteer positions. 

She said that the issue with the note quality stems down to a certain “culture” of individuals that view these volunteer positions as positions they take solely for the purpose of taking them or for a CCR notation, and that creating a paid note-taker position would prevent this.

Other than receiving a CCR notation, UTM AS says volunteer note-takers may also receive a professional — non-academic — reference letter upon request and enhance their organizational and note-taking skills. The AS website states that not only does the note-taker program help students receiving notes, but it helps the notetaker as well; past volunteers have stated that being a notetaker encouraged them to attend classes, be more attentive, participate in class discussions, and take comprehensive notes. 

Khan’s suggestion to improve the volunteer note-taker position is to have stricter deadlines as to when the note-taker must submit their notes to the database. Currently, note-takers are responsible for submitting notes within 48 hours of each class. If you’re currently enrolled in a course, regularly attend classes, and take detailed notes, you can register as a volunteer note-taker online. If you have any questions about the UTM program, you can contact [email protected].