Some Professors Fight Study-Help Sites. Other Professors Now Use Them.

Higher Education

Some Professors Fight Study-Help Sites. Other Professors Now Use Them.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 5, 2020

Some Professors Fight Study-Help Sites. Other Professors Now Use Them.

Rutgers professor Kristen S. Labazzo stumbled upon the Course Hero website when she was preparing to teach a big undergraduate course for the first time. She didn’t really pay attention to the goal of the site—which is for students to share their notes and other class materials. She saw it as a resource for her teaching.

“I found some homework questions. I found some quizzes and tests,” she said, noting that plenty of those materials and PowerPoint slides from other professors were easily found on Course Hero about the subject she was teaching, biomaterials. She took inspiration from what she found (though she said she didn’t copy anything verbatim), and the site made her feel like she had a handle on how others using the same textbook were running their classes. Or, as she put it, “It gave me an idea that at least I was on track.”

Soon someone from the company reached out to her to offer her credits for the site, which costs students either $39.95 per month, or $119.40 for one up-front payment for a year.

Later, she agreed to answer questions about how she had used the service and did an interview for an article on the company’s website about her teaching practices.

She followed Course Hero on Twitter, where its feed is full of advice and inspirational quotes for educators. It’s hard to tell from looking at that feed, she said, that the main paying customers for the service are students.

The company invited her on an all-expense-paid trip to its annual conference on teaching at its headquarters in San Francisco. She had never been to the city, and jumped at the chance at a professional-development opportunity she wasn’t getting through other channels at the university.

At about the same time, though, Rutgers officials sent out an email to all faculty at the university, warning about Course Hero and another service, Chegg, where students were posting faculty tests and exams without permission.

“We want to remind you that the material is yours—it’s copyrighted to you so if you don’t want this material posted you should inform your students,” she remembers the note saying.

“That was the first bad thing I had heard about Course Hero,” she says. “I was like, ‘wait a tick, now I’m curious.’” So she searched for her own class to see if her students were posting her materials.

“And sure enough I found four of my homework assignments,” she said. “I said, 'I don’t like that'—no dig to Course Hero.” And the student had been “slick,” she said, by posting it as if it was for a different course section, thinking his professor wouldn’t see it. She filled out a form on the site to request the material be removed, and she said the next time she logged on, it was gone.

She still took the trip and said she got a lot out of the presentations on teaching from the event. "This is no different than being a prominent researcher in a particular field and being paid to give a keynote at a prestigious conference," she said, "which is why I admire [Course Hero] for giving teachers some credit and kudos."

Labazzo’s story is one example of the unusual relationship that many professors have developed with Course Hero, a site that advertises itself as a way for students to “get unstuck.” The company is part of what has become a big business in providing study help to college students for a fee. In fact, Course Hero is growing so fast that it recently hit unicorn status, since the private company is now valued at more than a billion dollars by investors.

To encourage students to share their notes or other study aids, Course Hero gives out free credits for uploading, which means that students can avoid the subscription cost if they send in enough materials. This is the engine that lets it boast a library of “30-million course-specific study materials.”

The company goes out of its way to say that the service should only be used as a study aid, not as a way for students to cheat by having someone else provide them quick answers. As the site’s website says: “Course Hero does not tolerate copyright infringement, plagiarism, or cheating of any kind. Anyone who misuses Course Hero to gain an unfair advantage; submits another member's content as their own; or violates any law, regulation, ethics code, or school code will be permanently banned from the platform.”

But some professors say that in practice, the site is full of exams and test answers that professors simply don’t realize have been posted there.

One professor at North Carolina State University, who asked not to be named, said that he has found his materials there and feels the company could do far more to scan files to make sure exams and quizzes don’t get posted without the permission of professors. And he said the company’s policies mean that they have to be the ones to make sure the site isn’t being abused.

“Forcing authors constantly to monitor Course Hero for newly posted content… and, to generate a takedown notice, to submit or fill out online a form for each document posted, is a way of skirting copyright protections,” the professor argued. “In addition, those who post documents will sometimes misdescribe them in order to conceal their origin.” For instance, the professor added, students might label notes with the wrong class number or year to keep their professor from finding it.

Steve Van Horne, chief operating officer and chief financial officer at Course Hero, said in an interview that the company follows the same best practices used by other user-generated internet sites, like YouTube.

“The vast majority of people are using our platform appropriately,” he said, adding that many professors have signed up for the service and monitor their class sections. “We have tens of thousands of educators that are verified on our platform that are using the platform for its intended purpose.”

He said that any educator can get free access to the site to search for material that shouldn’t be there, and that the company is committed to removing any copyrighted material it is notified of within two days of receiving the notice. Essentially, the company is following the legal requirements of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. “Our intent,” he added, “is to be as careful as we can.”

Meanwhile, the company in recent years has stepped up its efforts to woo faculty members to be involved with the site. As a recent article in Inside Higher Ed noted, the company spends “multiple millions” each year on outreach to professors. Apparently, that involves lots of free trips for professors to attend its teaching conference.

Study Help or Study Replacement?

One of the other giants of the study-aid world, Chegg, has also come under criticism by professors.

When Elbridge Gerry Puckett, a professor at the University of California at Davis, noticed that answers to his assignments and a midterm exam were posted on Chegg, he contacted the site and asked its staff to take his intellectual property down. Days later, the answers remained. Puckett felt the site was asking him to jump through time-consuming hoops to make his take-down request, even though the materials clearly violated the terms of use for the site.

“They say to report an [improper] listing, you can fill out a form,” the professor said in an interview with EdSurge. “I’ve done that three times, but you have to have the URL pointing to your material,” he added.

But because he wasn’t a paying subscriber to the service, which costs $14.95 a month, he didn’t have the exact web address. “How am I going to get that?”

Chegg, meanwhile, argues that the professor’s situation is an anomaly, and that it has safeguards to prevent students from simply uploading their exams. “We do have software that looks for potential ‘tells’ such as the words ‘quiz’ or ‘exam’ in a submission,” said a company official in an email interview. And he said the company follows the law carefully.

And the company said that professors can request free accounts so that they can search the site to see if students are posting improper material.

While Puckett’s material has now been removed (after an EdSurge reporter asked about it), the professor has created a new design for all his exams, homework and computing assignments. Every page has a watermark running diagonally across each page in red ink that says: “Not for distribution online or any other means copyright. E.G. Puckett U.C. Davis.”

Tricia Bertram Gallant, a long-time leader with the International Center for Academic Integrity and director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California San Diego, said that she worries about the growth of study-help sites.

Though she said her university’s policy would not let her comment on individual companies, she said that she has seen students use such sites to find quick answers, rather than anything that aids learning.

“Students can’t distinguish between help that helps them learn, versus help that helps them get the assignment done,” she said. It doesn’t help, she added, that educators and parents have put so much emphasis on grades.

“You don’t hear people talk about learning, you hear them talking about grades,” she said. “In the extreme, students are assignment factories. They get an order from their boss—the professor—and they spit out a product. The sites exaggerate that. They focus on that piece of it. They focus on turning out product.”

In her opinion, colleges themselves should do more to provide 24/7 help to students and more support to help professors teach—just as these sites promise to do.

The companies are now trying to “seduce” professors to get involved in hopes that that will bring legitimacy, she added. Her prediction: “These companies are going to buy their way into legitimacy, and everyone’s going to say, “Okay, that’s the way it is now.”

Meanwhile, she worries that the sites will have long-term impacts on the students who enter the workforce with a habit of cribbing from online material. “It’s changing the way in which people view right and wrong,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify details about Labazzo’s experience with Course Hero.

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