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The Wrong Partnership?

Purdue professors say it is wrong for the university to work with Chegg, whose services they see as helping students cheat.

March 12, 2019
 

Professors at Purdue University are criticizing a new partnership between the university’s Online Writing Lab and student services company Chegg.

At a recent meeting of the University Senate, faculty members questioned why Purdue's OWL, a respected and influential resource on writing instruction, would partner with a company that has a reputation for helping students to cheat on their homework.

Ralph Kaufmann, a professor of mathematics who attended the meeting, said several professors were surprised and angered by the partnership with Chegg. Some professors said they had found answers to their old exam papers on the site and accused Chegg of copyright infringement, said Kaufmann. Minutes from the meeting are not yet publicly available, but student newspaper The Exponent identified two professors, Stephen Martin and Jeff Rhoads, as particularly vocal opponents of the deal.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Martin, a professor of engineering at Purdue, said his experience of Chegg has not been positive. "I was teaching a distance learning class a couple of years ago and two students -- one in India and one in China -- both supplied the same answer to an essay question. It was a suggested answer from Chegg, and it was a bad answer."

Martin said several professors had reached out to him since the University Senate meeting with similar experiences. "If this were a site that genuinely helped students to master the materials, it wouldn't be a problem. But it's not set up like that -- it dangles the solution in front of students."

"I think Purdue is a very high-quality academic institution, I don't know why we are lending our hard-earned reputation to a company that is essentially making it easy for students to cheat," said Martin.

Marc Boxser, a spokesman for Chegg, said the partnership with OWL is the result of two years' careful planning. OWL's expertise will help Chegg to improve the writing skills of millions of students, he said. "We were sorry to read in the media that two faculty members had concerns and have been in contact with them," said Boxser. "At Chegg, we take any allegations of misconduct on our platform very seriously. We are committed to working with them to address their concerns."

Chegg is a company with "two faces," said Kaufmann. Chegg used to primarily deal in textbook rentals, but now it describes itself as an education technology company, complete with AI-powered learning tools. But while Chegg purports to help students do their homework, students on Twitter are quite blatant about using the site to do their homework for them. Chegg subscriptions start at $14.95 a month and include access to millions of homework answers, step-by-step solutions to problem sets in thousands of textbooks and a network of experts who can answer questions 24-7.

Homework help services like Chegg, Course Hero and Quizlet are all “widely used” by students at Purdue, said Kaufmann, who recently researched academic rigor at Purdue as part of an investigative committee.

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab announced its partnership with Chegg in February. Harry Denny, director of OWL, said in an email that he was not surprised to hear that some faculty members disapproved of the partnership. “People are unaccustomed to the humanities and liberal arts being entrepreneurial,” said Denny in an email.

Denny does not think that working with Chegg will harm Purdue’s reputation. “My experience has been that the company is committed to partnering with faculty and administration to address their concerns, all the while following on its mission to provide a whole portfolio of excellent student services,” said Denny. He added that Chegg, as a publicly traded company, has “a fiduciary and shareholder responsibility to be ethical and responsible.”

OWL was approached by Chegg 22 months ago to help the company develop its writing tools, said Denny. The deal is multifaceted, he explained -- OWL will advise Chegg on writing instruction and help to develop the company’s AI-powered writing improvement tools. Chegg will license OWL’s writing tips and place advertising on its website, helping OWL to monetize its free content. Purdue students will also be given the opportunity to apply for paid internships at Chegg, said Denny. OWL anticipates a six-figure revenue from the partnership, he said.

Chegg already offers an AI-powered tool that checks for spelling, grammar and citation errors on student essays, as well as "accidental plagiarism." But a press release from Chegg explained that partnering with OWL could take this tool to the next level -- helping students to “become better writers on a massive scale.” Currently, 30 million students worldwide use Chegg's services.

Chegg’s writing tools will integrate OWL’s rules and standards to teach students how to write better, said the press release. Students will be given instant feedback on their writing as well as access to resources from OWL on how to improve with “deep context and rich examples.”

While Denny and his colleagues at OWL are excited about the potential of the partnership, Kaufmann said he is troubled by the possibility that Purdue’s data and expertise may be used to train AI that could help students quickly compose essays from materials that they’ve copied and pasted from the internet. He also does not like the idea that ads on OWL’s website might drive students to Chegg.

Susan Schorn, writing program coordinator in the school of undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said that OWL has a “well-earned reputation for the strength of its resources,” which she frequently recommends to instructors.

Schorn, who is a vocal critic of plagiarism software, said she is concerned that Chegg will teach students to check whether they have committed plagiarism by running their work through a machine. “In fact writers at the college level, in order to avoid plagiarizing, must learn to distinguish what is considered common knowledge in a field and what is not,” she said.

“I think it’s inevitable that Purdue OWL’s reputation will suffer from this association,” said Schorn. “I understand their desire to bring in a little cash, but I wish they had chosen a partner that didn’t come with the liabilities a platform like Chegg will inevitably have.”

Schorn said she would be keeping an eye on the OWL site to see how intrusive the ads are, and will be watching to see whether the “licensing of material to Chegg ends up making it less accessible to students who don’t want to purchase Chegg services.” If that happens, Schorn said, there’s a "good chance" she’ll stop recommending OWL as a resource.

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