Sean Michael Morris
“The predation of the edtech industry only works if we don’t lift our heads to see it, raise our hands to change it, stand in its way.”
Sean Michael Morris, the director of the University of Colorado at Denver’s Digital Pedagogy Lab and the editor of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, wrote those words in March 2019, articulating his belief that educators must beat back omnivorous educational technology companies.
Today, Course Hero, the controversial online site that invites students to post and download syllabi, worksheets, essays, previous exams and other course materials so other students can benefit from them (and so Course Hero can generate revenue), announced Morris is joining its team as vice president of academics.
Who Morris is and what Course Hero represents makes this an eye-catching hire in the education-technology world. Morris has worked in digital learning and education for about 20 years in a variety of different capacities, including as an instructional designer, before co-founding the Digital Pedagogy Lab, which brings together educators from around the world to discuss diversity, inclusion, critical digital pedagogy and the future of education, among other topics. He has been an outspoken and frequent critic of educational technology.
Morris published a blog post explaining his decision to join an ed-tech corporate titan, acknowledging he anticipates “some upsetness [sic] from those who have looked to me as a reliable critic of educational technology.” But, he said, his new role will allow him to continue his life’s work advancing critical digital pedagogy and challenging online platforms to do better. Morris has been particularly critical of plagiarism-detection software, learning management systems and proctoring services.
In an interview last week, Morris explained that those technologies “directly interfere with teaching and learning from a technological standpoint, and in some ways try to try to control teaching and learning in a certain way.” He said Course Hero was never really on his radar because “it doesn’t try to impose on the classroom; it doesn’t try to tell a teacher how to teach or tell a student how to learn.”
He said he will bring a pedagogical lens to his work at Course Hero and will help the company enhance its work helping students learn.
“It’s my intention—and the intention of those who hired me at Course Hero—that I will have a direct impact on how the platform functions not as an educational technology, but as a pedagogical one,” Morris wrote in his blog post. “I look forward to pushing on questions of digital literacy, student success, authorship, and, of course, the contradiction between students and teachers that is only made more complicated by technologies.”
Morris said he has concluded ed tech and academia must forge closer ties, because each “exerts pressure on students and upon learning” and should no longer operate as “institutions in argument with one another, often overlooking pedagogy as a common ground.”
Course Hero has long been maligned by educators who see it as a breeding ground for cheating and plagiarism. One 2009 article in Inside Higher Ed, entitled “Course Hero or Course Villain,” quoted several professors expressing concerns that their copyrighted course materials were showing up on the site and others describing its portals as “really fertile ground for plagiarism and dishonesty.”
Founded in 2006, Course Hero largely ignored educators across its first decade but has recently courted them by offering a share of revenue when they lend course materials and by hosting convenings, among other things. Andrew Grauer, the CEO and co-founder of Course Hero, said in an interview that about six years ago Course Hero began developing its platform to more deliberately appeal to educators.
Morris’s hiring highlights Course Hero’s focus on learning, Grauer said, because Morris “has always cared about humanizing education.” Grauer pursued Morris for the role, he said, after talking to and reading top thinkers in the field of pedagogy, including Jesse Stommel, Ben Wiggins and Sara Goldrick-Rab, who all were connected to Morris and his work.
“We’re trying to really create a platform that is focused on helping students succeed, helping them get unstuck, helping them understand, helping them practice, helping them be prepared for their studies,” Grauer said. “How do we do that in partnership with educators?”
Grauer said Morris’s charge will be to build answers to that question “into the different product development streams.”
Indeed, Course Hero’s recent business activity makes it clear the company thinks it can profit from pedagogy. Last month Course Hero announced its valuation had tripled, to $3.6 billion, after a year in which it acquired CliffNotes, LitCharts and QuillBot and more than doubled its total traffic.
In a blog post about the acquisitions at the time, Grauer said they would allow Course Hero to “ensure we are providing learners and educators with a comprehensive suite of tools and services across a wide range of subject matters, geographic locations, grade levels, types of content and more.”
Course Hero has invested significantly in winning over educators in recent years, creating an instructor portal known as the Faculty Club, where more than 80,000 educators gather to share lessons and teaching insights.
Grauer said Morris will help Course Hero as it seeks to better enhance “trust in students and trust in educators and the overlap or gap between them.” But he also wants Morris to help Course Hero better understand and solve for the difficulties faculty members confront.
“What are the different challenges within different disciplines and different contexts, whether it’s online or in hybrid learning?” Grauer asked. “What can we help with?”
Some educators interviewed for this article doubted Course Hero’s motives, pointing to a business model that awards students “tokens” for submitting exams and other course material to the site.
Kevin Gannon, a friend of Morris’s and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University, said that while he is “not a fan” of the site, he does like the idea of Morris “trying to subvert from within.” Gannon said he has had his teaching materials end up on Course Hero and had difficulty getting them removed.
“I will give them credit for hiring Sean, because he’s not subtle about what his stance is, and it’s a critical approach to ed tech,” Gannon said. “So maybe this is the opportunity to kind of steer the ship in a different direction. And I hope that that’s the case.”
Gannon said he is optimistic Morris’s hiring is a signal that Course Hero is going to become “more collaborative, and less kind of skeezy marketing.” Gannon added that as it stands, many faculty members hate Course Hero and similar websites for enabling cheating, but he worries about the “fuddy-duddy faculty standing in the way of students using this vital service” construct. He said he hopes Morris’s hiring offers a chance for students to use Course Hero “in ways that make sense for actual education.”
Grauer said Course Hero does not promote cheating and removes content from the site whenever educators or colleges ask. When asked if he views it as a problem that Course Hero allows course content that no one has asked to be removed to be shared, Grauer said he believes it is incredibly powerful for learning if students can share practice problems and tests.
“Our goal is how can we help students, in particular, succeed,” Grauer said.
Grauer said that for Course Hero, the answer to that question has been to make the site as open and accessible as possible. He said the site’s content is deliberately “indexable, searchable and available” so that learners and educators can access what they need with ease.
In his typically blunt fashion, Morris said he was shocked when Course Hero approached him about the job, asking, “Why on earth are they approaching me? Do they know who I am? Do they understand that I’ve been a critic of education technology for years?”
He said that after going through several interviews with Course Hero, he came away believing that Grauer and his team truly care about improving pedagogy. (Morris declined to say how much Course Hero will pay him).
“They’re really, really interested in creating essentially a pedagogical platform that is one that really emphasizes a teacher’s ability to teach, students’ ability to learn, and isn’t in any way trying to sort of manipulate that process or control that process,” Morris said of Course Hero. “We need to get students and teachers working together so that we have student teachers and teacher students in the classroom.”