Course Zero

There’s an interesting article at Inside Higher Education about the new breed of peer-to-peer style sites for collecting student notes and course materials, officially for the purposes of providing study aids. In reality, at least some of the sites in question look more like an open-source reinvention of the ye olde buy-a-term-paper services, or as IHE points out, the old file-cabinet-in-the-frat-house that collects old exams.

I’ve never gotten too agitated about this kind of site before, because I partly think that there’s an easy way to avoid being vulnerable to the misuse of these kinds of resources: don’t use the same exam year after year, and don’t give essay prompts that are conventional or typical assignments on a common subject matter. It’s easier to spot a student who has turned in someone else’s work when what they turn in is weirdly non-responsive to the particular prompt you handed out.

That said, I think it’s worth keeping tabs on what these kinds of companies are up to. So I went off and looked at Course Hero, the main focus of the article. All I can say to the CEO of Course Hero is, don’t insult my intelligence by claiming that you don’t use webcrawlers to prowl .edu domains to harvest content for the site. What you find in the folders for Swarthmore is a bunch of junk pulled straight out of specific folders on the server, with the server folder titles on it, most of them connected to the oldest layers of our web presence. Almost none of the stuff in there has got anything to do with actual courses taught here: it’s some old .pdf handouts, some faculty c.v.s, a few papers or publications by faculty. Useless to anyone, especially to some would-be plagiariser at another college who is hunting for a paper to rip off. It’s a lot of noise. But seriously, don’t even try to pretend that this is all coming from user submissions, that’s laughable.

I assume that the main reason for stuffing the site full of junk grabbed by a crawler is to give the impression that the site is full of content in order to incentivize students at various institutions to submit their papers and exams in order to gain access. If you look around the web, you see a lot of sites with user-created content that kind of fell short of a critical mass and now are struggling to figure out how to get people to continue to submit content. Review-based sites in particular often struggle to keep users motivated to contribute content on a regular basis rather than just when they’re really pissed off at a service or product. I don’t think this kind of strategy is going to work for getting around that problem: it’s just a digital Potemkin Village, and pretty easily seen through.

The one open question for me about a site like this is what I ought to think or feel when I do happen to spot a student’s work that’s been uploaded to the site, which I think I might have spotted while looking through our campus folder there. There isn’t any way to forbid a student to share their own intellectual property, and I wouldn’t want to try. On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel wary about someone who participates in a site of this kind, because I can’t see any genuine motive for it. A digital activist who is exploring how to use social networking for the general good is going to invest in some other kind of project, and a student who wants feedback on their work is also going to look elsewhere. A student who needs extra support for coursework at a place like Swarthmore has a host of local options that are high-quality and very targeted, as opposed to the assortment of junk and miscellany cluttering up a site like Course Hero. Why would you upload papers and exams to a site like this if not to keep the option of grabbing a paper or two when crunch time comes?

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4 Responses to Course Zero

  1. jfruh says:

    Wait, what motivation is there to upload your stuff at all? Do you only get to download things if you also upload something?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, if you upload a certain number of documents, you get access. Or you can pay a fee.

    I’m sure that’s their escape hatch for explaining the presence of tons of junk that doesn’t have anything directly to do with courses–“Oh, we didn’t grab it with a crawler, it’s probably just a student who grabbed that stuff to earn access to the site. We’ll try to refine our procedures so we get higher-quality blah blah de blah”. Pull the other one.

  3. evangoer says:

    Looks like most of their business model is obviated by typing “ {query}” into Yahoo! or Google or Bing. Sad.

    The user interface is terrible, too. They don’t even let you type your college name into a textbox, you have to spider through their menus first. And the college landing pages are hilarious.

    “Harvey Mudd College) is a private university in California. Harvey Mudd College has over 738 undergraduate students. The top 10 departments are CS, ENG, MATH, LIT, E, FOOL, PPOWER, WIN, WMF, and WINW.”

    What an idiot I was to major in FOOL!

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, it’s really pretty amusing when you get into the level where they keep the “content”. Swarthmore’s top departments include D, HANDBOOK, and LANDUSE.

    I majored in Handbook, man, it was deep.

    Kind of takes you back to the pre-dot-com bubble bursting, doesn’t it? When all you had to be able to do was talk a big line and have a couple of staffers who sort of knew some HTML, and blammo, venture capital was hooked.

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