Are We in the Upside Down? Course Hero, Lumen Learning, and All Kinds of Strange Things are Afoot in Ed-Tech

In my last post on The Quick(ish) Guide to Why Some People Don’t Like Course Hero, I stated that I really didn’t want to get into the controversy surrounding recent hirings at Course Hero. That was easy to say when it was just one head-scratching hire, but other things have happened since then that make it hard not to dive in somewhat. But just somewhat!

Part of the problem is that I have been waiting to see what big announcements Course Hero might make about upcoming changes. That hasn’t happened – but surely they have something up their sleeve? They make the claim that empowering students is in their DNA – but that isn’t true in it’s current form. Students can upload content – but its almost always content that others (usually instructors or content companies) have created. There is no real power in that – the students really have no say what is contained in that content. The instructor or company does. When students can upload something of their own creation that then becomes part of a class – that would be empowerment.

But why would they need Course Hero for that? They can already upload content to blogs, Google Drive, Dropbox, Discord, you name any one of hundreds of services. There is nothing special about yet another file hosting service – so either Course Hero has no idea what they are talking about, or there is a big change planned to their core model in the near future.

Even their core product – offering answers to assessments/assignments/etc – is not truly empowering for students. Students just take the answers and turn their course work in without learning the content… so at best Course Hero is extractive for students, not empowering.

Sadly, it has been difficult to get Course Hero to address this issue without deflecting to systemic issues. Of course the systemic issues are real and need to be dealt with – but Ed-Tech critics should know better than to deflect to systemic issues when they work for a company that quite literally drives the adversarial relationship between students and teachers. Giving away answers to anything and everything just adds more pressure to students to cheat. Not to mention that Course Hero’s access model creates even more pressure for students to steal content. Well… or to at least do something like that….

Additionally, Course Hero is also looking to work with instructors. But to do what? Host files? Instructors already have an LMS for that, along with all of the above-mentioned file hosting services. As it stands right now, instructors don’t really need anything new for hosting files or content. So surely they have something else planned, right?

As many have pointed out, there is a need for “reputation-washing” for a company like Course Hero. They are seen as a cheating site that pays little attention to following the law. There probably is something to this – many people have privately expressed irritation at several well-known educators that have defended Course Hero. But they are friends with these people, and don’t want to harm the friendship. I get that. It makes the world feel upside down, and its hard to know how to navigate this weird new situation.

So this leads to the reputation-washing whether Course Hero is wanting it or not. If you look at something like UngradingCon, many of the Session Leaders would probably boycott the conference if they were listed along with the CEO of Course Hero. But when listed with a friend or personal hero that has also aggressively defended Course Hero? Its a lot harder to know what to do when that person is a friend/mentor. Most would still question whether Course Hero and ungrading are a good mix. Like I said in my other post: “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.”

Certainly there is a lot of value into getting your company into spaces that they wouldn’t be welcome other wise. Even though Course Hero isn’t a strong match for the ungrading world, they are now a part of that community (like it or not).

But surely that is not the whole game plan, right?

Several people recently started to notice that some links to OER resources hosted on the Lumen Learning website started to redirect to the same content on Course Hero. It doesn’t seem like there was an announcement – it just happened. And yes, it was a weird change – Course Hero doesn’t always follow open licenses very well (according to some – the company disagrees). Steel Wagstaff of PressBooks seems to have uncovered the most information about what is going on here.

As several people have noted – Course Hero is blocked on many campuses. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to then realize what could happen here:

Another factor to consider – some of central figures at Lumen Learning have been laying the ground work for a partnership with for-profit Ed-Tech companies:

And yes, it is problematic to imply that people who might disagree with partnering with for-profits are “close-minded.” I risk the wrath of some of DW’s fervent defenders by pointing this out, but its not an attack to point out that less problematic language could have been chosen here.

Of course, since Course Hero does not have a reputation in some circles for protecting students very well, some instructors are not happy about having their content moved to Course Hero (and especially with out ever being told that the content was being moved). Other services are stepping up to offer alternatives, again proving that Course Hero is not offering a service that is unique in itself.

And then there are other wild, strange things going on as well that I am not sure exactly where they fit in the post, but they still do somehow:

So far, it seems that Course Hero is working on getting access to conferences, school servers, and circles of respect that they didn’t have in the past. But the questions still remains… for what purpose? Course Hero does not empower students, they don’t offer a service that instructors can’t get elsewhere, and they aren’t the best place to host OER content. But this is how they are starting to promote their services – even though we know their employees and spokespeople know better. But they also know what is discussed behind closed doors, so you have to wonder what is coming down the pipe to make them start saying these things? Until we find out what that is, the current situation is one of the stranger things happening in the already odd Ed-Tech space.