If you are part of certain circles in the education world (especially on Twitter), you probably saw the controversy yesterday about a well-known education critic being hired by the Ed-Tech company Course Hero. I really don’t want to wade into that controversy too much – I don’t know the people involved well enough to comment on their motives. I have never witnessed the whole “change a company from within” strategy ever work, but I know there is no shortage of people who will try. However, Course Hero has run under many people’s radars for a while, and I thought I would go into why some people don’t like the company’s product or business model.
So what exactly is Course Hero? Well, if you read the company hype, you will find things like “partnering with, connecting, learning from and teaching educators in support of them in empowering learners.” Which doesn’t really mean anything specific to be honest. The reality is that they are a resource sharing website, primarily driven by student labor. Students can find answers to test questions, past papers, course documents, and all kinds of materials related to courses they are taking (including entire chapters and courses). After free trials of various kinds, they also have to pay for this access. In turn, they are encouraged to upload documents for other students.
Now, I will say that I am typically sympathetic of students that use websites like this – even though I will still warn them not to.
When we focus on grades rather than the human side of learning, sites like Course Hero spring up and help people game the numbers.
— Matt Crosslin (@grandeped) November 11, 2016
We can get mad at them for using it, or wonder why we have a system that makes them want to outsource their assignments.
— Matt Crosslin (@grandeped) November 11, 2016
So before I dive into that problematic system, I will point out to students that using Course Hero can be dangerous. Your institution probably has strongly-worded “Academic Honesty” statements that spell out harsh possibilities for being caught sharing your work with other students or uploading your instructor’s copyrighted content to any website without their permission (and institutions also often claim copyright on course content as well). Even if your intent is to share examples to help other students (something many instructors even encourage), your institution might not see it that way. Plus, I did a quick search through Course Hero yesterday and found a large number of papers that still had the students’ name on them. That means that a random school official could be surfing through their website, see your name, and get you in trouble for a course from a couple of years ago. Course Hero does not appear to be doing much to protect the students that it uses for free labor, so “user beware.”
However, like I said, it is important to understand why students use Course Hero. So many of our institutions still promote high stakes assessment (tests, essays, etc) as the main mode for “weeding out” students (side note: never refer to your students as “weeds”). Sometimes this even comes wrapped in poorly designed courses that don’t do enough to prepare students for these assessments. Students are then given the impression that cheating is the only way other students survive the gauntlet (and in many cases, this is probably true). Focusing on the students that use Course Hero misses the real problem of an institutional system that created the pressure to cheat in the first place.
But remember students – if you are caught using Course Hero, your institution will most likely not do any soul searching on the way they created the pressure to move you in that direction. They will just punish you and move on. Again – user beware.
I see nothing in Course Hero that pushes back against this problematic pedagogy. In fact, it only seems geared to empower that system. I really don’t see a way that Course Hero could co-exist with ungrading, or if students would even bother to use it if grades were low-stakes in any way.
What you have is a company that utilizes free labor (yes, just like other companies like Facebook) and a “freemium” model to get users to start paying. It also has an internal tokening system that creates rewards for uploading content (search Twitter for Course Hero, and most of what you get is users claiming to sell these tokens for cheap). Because most of the users at some point or another are desperate to survive a harsh academic system somewhere, many feel Course Hero is a predatory service relying on student fear. Yes, they do position themselves as a pro-student company, but honestly I don’t see how they are more pro-student than anyone else.
Also of note is the general legality of Course Hero – it’s pretty easy to find many, many examples of how they are in violation of NC licenses. But on top of that, since all material (in the U.S. at least) is automatically copyrighted once it is created – I don’t see how much on their website is technically legal at all (outside of the occasional rare public domain license). You don’t have to agree with copyright laws – I am just pointing out the statues here as they currently stand. In addition, most institutions have added copyright rules that require you to at least get the permission of the instructor, if not the entire institution, before uploading to any external website. Since it would take a massive legal fund to challenge any one of these points, Course Hero probably enjoys a relative “freedom” from legal prosecution. From many accounts I can find online, it is very difficult to get copyrighted material taken down with a simple take down notice. Course Hero does not have a great record of responding to critics of any kind (despite what some might say), including direct legal challenges.
Plus, many institutions will directly name Course Hero as a reason why they have to get proctoring surveillance solutions. Course Hero may not like it (or maybe they do – who knows?), but they are a major player in the course surveillance system. You will hear Course Hero directly named by institutions as one reason they need to increase surveillance. As many people have put it, dealing with a nuclear arms race by adding more nuclear missiles is a step in the wrong direction.
You may disagree with all of these assertions about Course Hero (I am sure the company does). I would refer you back to the title of the post – these are reasons why people don’t like Course Hero. There are many other reasons as well. I’m not here to weigh the praise alongside the criticism.
One of the oldest, cliche moves in the book for tech companies in general is to hire a critic into a high level position at their company. They hope to borrow that critic’s reputation to clean up their image. It never works that way, but still companies try all the time Is that what Course Hero is doing now? Only time will tell. Every single critic that has ever been duped by a tech company in the past all claimed before hand that they were too smart to get duped. Sometimes, they were even hired by someone that really meant it… until that person got forced out by larger forces in the company.
Ultimately, companies don’t really care that much about any of that drama. Drama creates attention, and attention is what they need. They know that when they hire a critic, they also get the loyalty of some of that critic’s friends and colleagues along the way. They know they are getting multiple defenses of their company from many other respected voices… for free. And with Course Hero, you are already seeing that. These defenses range from the normal “I won’t attack someone just for taking a job” (agreed) to the questionable justifications of the company actions to the downright passive aggressive denigrations. One person even made me think “well, Headmaster Killjoy is here to swat down the plebes that dare have a different opinion!” Then there are the attacks and fights. I sincerely hope the people that become that aggressive will realize that they only make people hate Course Hero more when they do that.
Anyways, my only real message here is to please understand why there is so much distrust of Course Hero out there. Most of the disagreement with the recent announcement has been serious and respectful, despite what the defenders of the announcement will claim. Not all disagreements have been cordial, obviously… but the announcement came with the direct statement that “this will upset people.” Why tear into people when they are responding exactly as noted?
Or the bigger question: if Course Hero is a good company that truly engages with it’s critics… they why does it need to be subverted from within? Some people are saying both, and it really doesn’t match if you think about it.
Matt is currently an Instructional Designer II at Orbis Education and a Part-Time Instructor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Previously he worked as a Learning Innovation Researcher with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His work focuses on learning theory, Heutagogy, and learner agency. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.