Course Hero Woos Professors

The company's website for sharing course materials is popular with students but a decade ago raised faculty hackles over copyright and enabling cheating. Has its outreach to professors changed the narrative?

February 19, 2020
 
Course Hero
CEO Andrew Grauer at last year's Course Hero Educator Summit

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Gaye Theresa Johnson's initial experience with Course Hero nearly a decade ago was not a positive one. As an early-career faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles, she discovered that some of her students were uploading her study guides and tests to the sharing website, without permission, and that other students were using those materials.

"We were already in the digital age, but it still felt like cheating to me," says Johnson. As a then-junior professor in African American studies, Johnson hadn't copyrighted the material, so she didn't share the concerns many instructors have historically had about sites like Chegg, Quizlet and Course Hero. But as someone who, now at 47 years of age, describes herself as "old school," "I still viewed it pretty antagonistically."

As time passed, though, Johnson's view shifted. Today's students, she says, aren't like she was -- someone who got an opportunity to be educated in "the most traditional ways" (in-person, often in small classes), and had "great experiences … that were one of the major things that shaped me."

"But I am open enough to see that the students are not in that place anymore -- that’s not who they are. The world has changed," she says. "Just as I realized it wasn't realistic for me to say, 'No laptops in class anymore,' it's clear that students don't use the encyclopedia anymore. They use YouTube; they learn through sharing."

She adds, "The tools have changed; the scene has changed. If I don’t embrace this new way that students are learning, I’m doing them a disservice. We educators have to change, too."

Johnson says Course Hero has helped her embrace that change. She is not only one of the 30,000 faculty participants in Course Hero's instructor portal (the "faculty club"), but she also enthusiastically attends the company's annual educator conference and has had her teaching profiled on the company’s website.

A decade ago, Inside Higher Ed and other publications were filled with headlines on faculty concerns about students' use of sites like Course Hero for sharing course materials. (One 2009 article in Inside Higher Ed, entitled "Course Hero or Course Villain," featured numerous professors bemoaning the appearance of their copyrighted course materials on such quiz- and homework-sharing sites and others describing the portals as "really fertile ground for plagiarism and dishonesty.")

But that very same article also quoted a longtime adjunct instructor acknowledging the potential power of a learning-based social networking site. "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," the instructor said back then. "This may become the ‘study group’ of the 21st century."

The copyright and cheating concerns have not disappeared, and less than a year ago faculty members at Purdue University objected to a partnership between the institution's well-regarded Online Writing Lab and Chegg, citing cheating concerns.

But the supportive views like those expressed by UCLA's Johnson seem to comfortably coexist alongside the lingering concerns. The shift has not been entirely coincidental, at least in Course Hero's case. The company, says CEO and co-founder Andrew Grauer, has invested “meaningfully” in building faculty support, funding fellowships with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for Teaching and incentivizing faculty members to participate in the content-sharing network alongside their students. (He declines to share a specific dollar amount.)

Course Hero made news in business and technology publications last week by becoming the latest education technology company to see its value soar past $1 billion. This column explores an issue altogether different from Course Hero's valuation: Has the company become a valued player in the learning ecosystem in the eyes of faculty members? Have concerns about copyright and cheating dissipated?

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Course Hero was founded in 2006, one of a slew of websites that enabled students to post and download syllabi, worksheets, essays, previous exams and other course materials. Among its differentiators was that the materials were all tied to specific courses. Students pay either a monthly or an annual fee to download material -- the fee can be limited or waived if they themselves upload content to the marketplace. It is also one of many places on the internet where students can pay for tutoring help.

The company generated a good bit of early criticism -- arguably a sign of its impact. Aggrieved faculty members complained that students were sharing instructors' intellectual property without their permission and enabling the sort of questionable sharing of academic work that previously was available only in a fraternity-house basement or a quiet meeting amid the campus library stacks.

Course Hero officials at the time said that they responded aggressively to complaints brought under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but that “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.”

The company has also taken numerous steps to try to combat cheating (which we’ll describe later in the article).

None of those complaints seemed to impede Course Hero's growth among students. It now receives about 400 million visits a year; Grauer tells business publications that the company exceeds $100 million in revenue, mostly from about one million subscribers paying $40 a month or $120 a year. Most of the visits involve students exploring and using the site’s roughly 30 million educational resources that their peers (and instructors) have shared. Visitors also can tap into Course Hero’s tutoring network to get “24/7 homework help.”

“Everything we do is designed to help students practice, learn and get unstuck,” says Grauer, who co-founded the company as a student at Cornell University.

A Focus on the Faculty

Building out the website’s resource-sharing platform remains Course Hero’s top priority. But its other two “big bets,” Grauer says, are (1) using the vast data at its disposal (in terms of the sorts of content and help students are looking for) to create its own content and (2) building out its portal for educators.

“There are so many great teaching faculty who are dedicated to active learning and to their teaching, and we’re focused on bringing them into the ecosystem to make it richer and much more powerful for our users,” Grauer says.

While the site is still geared primarily to students, Course Hero is amassing significant content about, for and from college faculty members. About 30,000 professors from colleges and universities in the U.S. have a presence on the platform -- many have profiles, while others have been subjects of highly produced videos of instructors Course Hero deems "master educators."

The company also two years ago started a fellowship program through the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which in 2019 awarded grants of $30,000 to four tenure-track instructors and grants of $20,000 to four adjuncts or instructors off the tenure track.

"So many awards and fellowships don't really recognize and applaud excellent postsecondary teaching," says Patrick Riccards, a spokesman for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. "We believed we could work with Course Hero to put forward a good product, put together something that would positively impact the academy."

Grauer said the focus on adjuncts was not accidental.

"About 70-75 percent of the [roughly] 1.5 million U.S. college instructors are adjuncts often teaching courses at multiple institutions or working another job trying to make ends meet," he says via email. "These educators have a need to find and create teaching and assessment materials better and faster. We think it is mission critical to support, amplify and celebrate these educators and their contributions. We are doing this by building a community of practice that facilitates the sharing of those resources and their use -- for the benefit of students."

Course Hero's focus on making heroes out of the faculty is rather uncommon among technology companies, and its rationale for investing in professors sounds reasonable.

But a skeptic (say, a reporter) might wonder if Course Hero is also making its big investment -- which clearly seems to be in the multiple millions of dollars a year -- to blunt the historical criticisms and win hearts and minds. "Does all this investment," I asked Grauer in an interview, "build faculty support for what you do?"

"I certainly hope so," he replies. "But Course Hero didn't -- doesn't -- need to make this investment in educators. Others haven't, or haven't yet. But we think the outcome of doing so will be to make a really powerful platform of quickly accessible and affordable resources from as many different people and places as possible. And we find that what educators seem to appreciate the most is simply having conversations with them and listening to them as they talk about their teaching. That's been at the heart of what we do."

Course Hero officials certainly believe they've moved the needle on faculty opinion. The company tracks educator opinion through regular surveys, and its year-end poll of 800 educators found that 43 percent were aware of Course Hero, and of those, between three-quarters and four-fifths were either positive or neutral in their views of the company, whether it helps students learn and whether they trusted it.

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Faculty members like Gaye Johnson say Course Hero meets their needs in multiple ways. When she needed ideas for new classroom exercises or assessment problems, she "used to just ask a friend or a colleague in my department," Johnson says. "But I like being part of a community where educators believe in that kind of sharing, and I want to be able to do that across disciplines and across the country, not just [with] the person across the hall."

She also believes that when a Course Hero-hired writer profiles one of her course strategies, they will convey an understanding of her that few people beyond her classroom might see.

"They asked me to explain why I teach this way, why I believe in democratization in education," Johnson says. "If someone were to follow me on Course Hero, they will see why I think what I do is important."

Barbara Oakley had slightly different reasons for embracing the Course Hero approach. Long before she was a professor of engineering at Oakland University and the creator of one of the world's most-attended massive open online courses (boasting 1.9 million enrollees), Oakley was an army captain who had studied Russian but hated math.

When she returned to college at age 26 to study engineering, she felt like an outsider. Oakley failed an early test in a course on circuits, she says, because she didn't understand a concept the professor had never introduced in class. Other students didn't fail -- and when she pressed, she learned that most of them had had an old exam of his that revealed the trick.

"I never knew that was a thing to do," Oakley says. "You had to get into a clique."

A platform like Course Hero "helps level the playing field," Oakley says, letting students "who were like me or had more disadvantages get some of that insider knowledge. It gives students access to extra practice problems to work with.

"And it makes my life easier," she continues. "If you've been teaching a course for 15 to 20 years, it's hard to come up with anything new, so you might start to recycle old tests from five or 10 years before. From my perspective, if a student wants to look at five to 10 years of my old tests and happens to find something I’m putting on [an exam] again, that means they’re working really hard, doing lots of problems."

And the Course Hero education summit? "It's a really nice way of interacting with all of these wonderful, upbeat professors who are really open with their materials and want to help their colleagues become better," Oakley says. "There's nothing better for my teaching adrenaline than that."

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David Rettinger appreciates that change is afoot in higher education, as professors like Gaye Johnson and Barbara Oakley suggest, and that faculty members may not be adjusting sufficiently to it. It's a "totally legitimate point that sharing documents can be beneficial in some particular cases and that tutoring can be legitimate in many cases," says Rettinger, professor of psychological sciences and director of academic programs at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia.

Higher education is evolving "to be more collaborative and dynamic and less lecture/exam/research paper-based," Rettinger adds. And when that happens, he says, "technology and pedagogy will come together in ways that really benefit students."

Right now, though, "there's a very serious gap between those things, and in my experience, faculty in the U.S. are largely naïve and unaware of the tremendous problem that technology is creating for contract cheating and file sharing."

Rettinger's other relevant role: president of the International Center for Academic Integrity.

He goes out of his way to say that he isn't anti-technology, and he says he believes "there's certainly a lot of legitimate learning that goes on on Course Hero" and other sites. (He acknowledges that his daughter, an elementary school student, "uses Quizlet all the time" to find extra problems to drill on.)

The philosophical premise behind sharing websites like Course Hero -- and behind getting a higher education, for that matter -- is that "there’s some pedagogical learning value that comes out" of exploring the educational materials you might find on such sites, Rettinger says.

But another major shift that's unfolding, he says, is that more and more students are entering college -- and, one would presume, using platforms like Course Hero -- not to drive their learning but to pursue a credential. They may be less interested in learning, and more in getting the answers they need to finish a homework assignment.

While on the phone with this reporter, Rettinger goes to Course Hero's 24-7 tutoring page and identifies a set of student queries that seem designed to solicit answers to homework rather than to help a student build his or her understanding of the subject matter.

In his own field, cognitive psychology, he finds numerous study guides that students have created. "Could it be the case that someone's study guide could be helpful to their peers? Sure," he says. "But I always tell my students to make their own study guide -- that's the best way to learn the material. So here is a shortcut that is actively unhelpful to their peers."

It gets worse, Rettinger continues. "I see a lot of papers on there -- completed work in response to prompts. That to me is a recipe to encouraging people to cheat.

"It's a marketplace. If Napster was shut down for being a piracy site, I don’t see how this is different.... They may say, 'It's not our fault if students use our tool for ill -- we ask them not to.' But I think we can generally agree that when you lower the bar for doing something dishonest, you're contributing to that dishonest behavior."

"Even if you tell me only a third is file [of the activity on Course Hero] is sharing for cheating purposes, they've got millions of users."

Rettinger ultimately believes that transparency is at the core of this problem. "If students knew where faculty were getting the resources we were using, and students were transparent about where they were getting their answers, this wouldn't really be an issue," he says.

"If you're my student and you want to use Course Hero tutoring, have at it," he says. "Send me the transcript so I can see what you were struggling with and how they helped. If you're unwilling to share that, I'd have to ask, 'What are you hiding?'"

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Grauer, the Course Hero CEO and co-founder, says the company combats potential academic misconduct in every way it can. Any time it identifies cases of abuse, "or where it becomes exceedingly clear that there is abuse," site monitors "remove that content."

"And if we start to identify different keyword phrases that seem to violate standards of academic integrity, we don't allow those questions" to go through to tutors.

Beyond individual reports or cases, Course Hero "makes the content in our library as indexable by search engines as possible," Grauer says. "If they're going to use content from our site and turn it in as their own, we've made it as easy as possible for that to be detected" by instructors.

"Through moderation, we commit to doing our best to protect and uphold academic integrity," he says. "That said, in an open platform like this, the issues you talked about are going to come up, and we need to respond to them promptly and thoughtfully."

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