Balancing Student Privacy and Open Access

What responsibility does a course materials–sharing platform have to protect the privacy of the students who use it?

February 15, 2022
 
Course Hero
Course Hero is under fire for hosting student essays that disclose traumatic experiences.

This article uses explicit and potentially upsetting language that is essential to reporting on this situation.

“My freshman year in college I was gang raped in the college public restroom,” a student at a private college in Delaware described in a writing assignment. “Prior to the attack I sensed something off but could not have imagined what was about to happen.”

“I was raped several years ago, but I can still hear him whispering things in my ear,” a student at a community college in California recalled in devastating detail. “I can still feel his breath on my neck. I remember how most of my family defended him, and to this day I can’t look at them the same way.”

“When I was about four years old, my father started raping me,” a student at a Colorado community college wrote. “This went on for about 4 or 5 years until I said something and eventually, I got into a better situation.”

The excerpts from these and countless other student papers appear on the course materials–sharing platform operated by Course Hero, which operates an online learning site for students to access course-specific study resources. The first-person narratives, which often include the full names of the students and the colleges they attend, were submitted to the site by the students. (All three excerpts quoted above included the full name and university of the student authors.)

Karen Costa, an educator focused on trauma and a freelance faculty development facilitator, put Course Hero’s questionable practices regarding student privacy and trauma in the spotlight with a post on Medium earlier this month. Costa found numerous examples of student writings—frequently with identifying information—disclosing intensely personal traumas, including gang rape, incest and domestic violence. She questioned why a company valued at $3.6 billion would not do more to protect the students from whose work it profits.

Course Hero populates its site with millions of student-contributed papers and exam questions, which Costa says incentivizes students to share material by giving them free access to other material on the site, a power imbalance that Costa finds troubling.

“You too can earn a free unlock!” Costa wrote on Medium. “Just upload that incredibly personal essay filled with your deepest traumas! Join the peer-to-peer learning movement! Seems fair, right? I get a free unlock. You get 3.6 billion. A healthy, balanced power dynamic.”

Costa worries that many of the students using Course Hero do not have the data literacy or savvy to understand that once they upload their content to the site, their private lives will be laid bare for the world to see.

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“They’re feeding these students’ deeply personal stories into their data farm,” Costa said in an interview. “I just see this as an immense violation, exploitation and safety issue for these students.”

(Note: Inside Higher Ed asked Costa to contact some of the students and faculty members to see if any were willing to speak about their experiences, but none were willing.)

Monique Ho, Course Hero’s chief compliance officer and general counsel, said she was unaware students had uploaded such sensitive content to the site prior to Costa’s Medium essay being posted.

“We are a user-generated site and, we say publicly, we have 70 million documents any given day, and so it’s not something we have a good sense of—what’s in the library,” Ho said.

In some cases, high school students are among those sharing sensitive content, which Ho said she was also unaware of, since Course Hero “is not directed toward minors.”

Sean Michael Morris, a newly hired vice president at Course Hero and former director of the University of Colorado at Denver’s Digital Pedagogy Lab, said he is leading an effort to address the gaps that have led to students posting sensitive accounts of abuse—and identifying themselves in the process. Morris said he was grateful for Costa’s essay because it is helping him “understand where the sticky problems are, and how we can begin to solve them.”

Morris said he is proposing Course Hero design a button or other tool to warn students before they upload materials, cautioning them to remove their names and other identifying information.

“This is a real problem, and we need to figure this out,” Morris said. “Whether or not that’s a legal issue is less concerning to me than it is an ethical issue.”

Morris said his goal is for Course Hero to “do more to educate students at the moment of uploading so that they are reminded of what’s about to happen, that their work is about to become public, to check for their names.”

He said while he doesn’t know exactly what the warning will look like, “It’s definitely a priority at this point to try to incorporate a little bit more education at the moment of uploading … I want to be able to give more power back to the student.”

Asked about Course Hero’s legal exposure for allowing students, and possibly minors, to post about sexual assaults and identify themselves, Ho said Course Hero is a user-generated platform and individuals are responsible for what they post.

“We don’t censor what people post, nor do we have the ability to know whether these are creative writing works or college admission essays or content they create for other English classes,” she said.

Ho noted, however, that Course Hero doesn’t want content that individuals do not want on the site to remain there. She said the platform has a process in place for people to ask for content to be removed for privacy or copyright reasons.

“We remove things fairly quickly,” Ho said. She added that while it depends on volume of requests at any given time, Course Hero generally removes that content students request be deleted within a couple of days.

Users of Course Hero have reported difficulty getting content removed, however. The website also is clear about who owns content once it is submitted.

Customer support answers the question “How do I remove a document I previously uploaded?” by noting, “When you sign up with Course Hero, you agree to grant us a perpetual and irrevocable license to your Submissions.”

Jennifer Sano-Franchini, associate professor and former director of professional and technical writing at Virginia Tech, has posted a great deal on Twitter about her difficulty getting her own personal data removed from Course Hero. She said she is disturbed by obstacles on the site to removing content.

“I think it’s an issue that students are unable to delete files they’ve previously uploaded, especially given the possible nature of the content, and given the ways that the site incentivizes and encourages uploads,” Sano-Franchini said. “That is, the site uses deceptive design to encourage folks to upload content, but then makes it pretty much impossible to take down. That’s a problem, especially when we consider that Course Hero in a lot of ways targets students who are in need of [academic] support.”

Sano-Franchini said she successfully removed a syllabus of hers that was uploaded from public access, but she has found it impossible to get her data removed from the site.

Brenna Clarke Gray is a coordinator of educational technologies at Thompson Rivers University and focuses much of her work on data privacy. She said she is concerned that Course Hero’s recent acquisition of Quillbot—which describes itself as a paraphrasing tool that “helps millions of people rewrite and enhance any sentence, paragraph, or article using state-of-the-art AI”—suggests that Course Hero has “machine learning plans” for the student papers along the lines of Quillbot’s bank of paraphrased language. (A Course Hero spokeswoman says Quillbot has nothing to do with Course Hero’s data-removal processes and that Course Hero does not sell user data.)

“From a data privacy perspective, what strikes me is the absolute absence of any kind of content moderation on the site, which inappropriately places the burden to protect privacy on students who are in a vulnerable position—needing support materials and uploading whatever they have to get it—without appropriate guidance,” Clarke Gray said in an email. “This is not a process that can be left to free-for-all, and I know from working with students that the range of the sense of what is or should be private data can vary tremendously.”

She called the fact that Course Hero doesn’t redact or otherwise moderate user submissions “plainly exploitative.”

Cheri Kiesecker, former co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, an advocacy group seeking stronger student data privacy protections, said she is deeply disturbed by the content she found on the Course Hero site, particularly posts from minors including identifying information and sexual assault experiences.

“They shouldn’t be posting exploitative, harmful, abusive content that further exploits not only the child that uploaded it, but a lot of these essays are talking about ‘my dad has done this to my sister,’” Kiesecker said. “This is horrific, and these kids may not even be aware that they are outing themselves and that it’s there for anybody to find … This is frightening. It is actually dangerous.”

Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy, activism, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on digital privacy, said it is highly problematic that students are incentivized to upload their materials in exchange for access to the site but are given no warning about the need to remove personally identifiable information.

“I went through the process and just noticed that there’s no disclaimer, or warning, or suggestion to remove personally identifiable information, which is really, I think, part of the problem here—between incentivizing students to upload potentially private information, there’s no suggestion that you think about it carefully,” Kelley said. “They need to think about the privacy concerns of students.”

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