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Course Hero or Course Villain?

Course Hero or Course Villain?
October 6, 2009

Aside from the parties and networking opportunities, one of the perennial perks of Greek Life has been the coveted “test file” — a collection of past exams and papers from various courses.

A new breed of study-buddy sites offers these resources to everybody, not just those who have endured Greek initiation rites. Companies such as Notehall, Knetwit, and FindMyNotes.com have long hosted online markets where students can buy or sell class notes. Now, sites such as Course Hero invite students to post and download syllabuses, worksheets, essays, previous exams, and many other course materials.

At Course Hero, a site that lately has been the subject of much hand-wringing among campus information technology officers, users can either shell out $30 for a month-long subscription or pay in uploaded documents. Forty documents equals one month of access to all the files posted by the site’s users. The company says millions have visited the site since it was unveiled a year and a half ago.

The purpose of Course Hero, according to David J. Kim, the company’s president and CEO, is to “maximize and accelerate academic breakthroughs by students.” By providing a place where users can share documents and communicate on discussion boards, Kim said, the site allows students across the world to leverage others’ knowledge in order to deepen their own — like any study group, but exponentially larger.

Some professors and administrators, however, have chafed at the idea of a site that encourages students to take professors' intellectual output, post it without permission, and then allow a company to sell access to it for profit.

“If I put the time and effort into developing a brief summary of a class I was teaching or a particular lesson, I would be extremely disappointed if it were put on the Internet and people were making a profit off of it, especially without my permission,” said Gina Mieszczak, who taught at DePaul University for three years before joining the Illinois Institute of Technology as a network security administrator.

Tracy Mitrano, an information science scholar and director of IT policy at Cornell University, said it is likely that many professors have legitimate copyright claims on materials that have been uploaded without their knowledge. “If I’m going to spend many hours writing up an exam, assuming it has original work in it and it’s in a tangible medium, then I as the creator of that work, under the traditional rules of universities, own the copyright to it,” Mitrano said. This applies to any original work, she added — even if it’s scrawled on a cocktail napkin.

Course Hero, meanwhile, says it is not liable for any copyright infringements because it explicitly exercises no oversight over posted content. Like YouTube, Course Hero only takes down copyrighted content if there is a complaint. (This explains why certain documents found on the site — such as one filed under a purported Benedictine University offering called “Alumni 1962” — do not appear to correspond to an actual course; contrary to the suspicions of some, Kim said the company is not using robots to crawl university Web domains for electronic documents.)

“We take copyright and intellectual property infringement very seriously,” said Kim. “However, as a user-generated content site, we don’t review the content… Unfortunately, at times we recognize that users may submit materials that they don’t have rights to.”

Kim said that relative to the number of documents that have been posted on the site (“in the millions”), the company has fielded few complaints. He noted that while Course Hero’s approach to purging copyrighted content is passive, it is in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

But Christopher W. Wessells, vice provost and chief information officer at the University of San Diego, said many college officials are still in the dark about Course Hero, even as it has become popular among students. "I recently quizzed 13 provosts and vice provosts," he said. “They had no idea about these services... I think in general higher education is just beginning to look at this."

For some, the question of whether such a site violates intellectual property protections is secondary; some officials have expressed concerns over whether Course Hero’s efforts to create a community of shared information might actually enable cheating.

“There are exams, quizzes, homework going up on these sites that are really fertile ground for plagiarism and dishonesty,” said Wessells.

Former user John Stacey, who said the site's resources helped him complete homework assignments and study for midterms before he graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara last spring, acknowledged that “the concerns over plagiarism are well-warranted.” He does, however, think the potential benefit of sharing sites such as Course Hero outweigh the cost (enough so that he contributed a glowing review to the site’s testimonial page).

“As long as the teaching communities, students, and employees of Course Hero work together to ensure that plagiarism and cheating, and material that supports it, are absent from the site, it can serve to vastly enhance the means through which students and collaborate, teach, learn, and innovate amongst themselves and those in surrounding communities,” Stacey wrote to Inside Higher Ed.

Kim said Course Hero does have plans to “work with educators and institutions in this vein” that it should be rolling out by next spring, though he declined to offer further details.

Josh Baron, the director of academic technology and e-learning at Marist College and a longtime adjunct professor, said that while he considers Course Hero’s systematic appropriation of copyrighted material “unethical,” the idea of a learning-based social networking site holds promise. “Imagine business students at Stanford, Marist, University of Beijing and University of Paris connecting up outside of their courses to study together and maybe even work on team projects,” he wrote to colleagues on an Educause discussion forum. “This may become the ‘study group’ of the 21st century.”

Mitrano, the legal expert, said that she understands her colleagues’ frustration as technology chips away at their control over course materials. But she cautioned against invoking copyright laws in an attempt to cripple Course Hero or its cousins.

“Copyright is supposed to be about an incentive that you get as an author for a limited period of time to enjoy the benefits of your creation — it’s the [act of] creation that copyright law wants to incentivize,” she said.

“If now professors want to use copyright as a means to maintain their control over the classroom, I suggest that there might be something disingenuous about that that might chafe with the values that so many of us in higher education hold dear,” she said.

 

 

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