In May, homework help site that relies on student-generated content, Course Hero, dipped its toes into freely available, open-licensed alternatives known as open educational resources, or OER, course materials.
The company has taken over hosting of some popular OER offerings hosted by Lumen Learning, a courseware provider that argues that OER can make higher education fairer.
When educators stumbled upon the fact that accommodation had changed hands, it caused a backlash. Educators have expressed their annoyance on social media and in OER discussion groups, in part because of Course Hero itself, which some educators say encourages students to cheat with course grades and other documents published there, but also because the agreement was not announced, and they felt that its parameters were not clear.
Course Hero officials say the backlash came as a surprise.
“Some of this news cycle around this caught us off guard,” says Sean Michael Morris, vice president of academics at Course Hero.
This was the company’s “first foray” into OER, and it’s still figuring out how OER fits in, Morris says. “I mean, there are ways in which OER are sort of sacrosanct in the education community,” he adds. “And we want to make sure we treat it the best we can.”
Not even the company knows exactly how this move plays into its larger strategy, it seems.
“In terms of working with it and finding out how it’s going to work with the rest of our library, which was, again, one of the reasons we haven’t talked about it openly, because we’re still in the process of integrating and figuring out how it works best in our library,” says Morris.
Others trying to get details of the deal have suggested the companies are “filibustering”.
It’s the secrecy of the deal and the lack of clarity surrounding it that has, at least in part, caused some of the backlash, according to Bryan Alexander, a futurist and senior fellow at Georgetown University.
In an interview with EdSurge, a spokesperson for Course Hero declined to comment on whether any money would change hands as part of the deal, saying it was “something that continues to remain between the two companies.” . The official also declined to say what, if anything, was given to Lumen in exchange for the redirected traffic that OER content brings. (Lumen previously told EdSurge that they “didn’t sell any content.”)
It’s also unclear what this means for the larger picture of open educational resources, says Alexander. OER’s business model has always been difficult, he suggests, and Lumen handing the content over to Course Hero seems like it might be plausible that they’re okay with those who think there’s no good business case for OER.
The choice of Course Hero as host seems odd, adds Alexander, when there were other less controversial options such as MERLOT System, an international association that supports OER, or the Internet Archive.
For some instructors and students, using OER content is complicated by the fact that some campus networks have actually blocked Course Hero core service domains.
“As a representative of Course Hero, I would say, try to make sure your university doesn’t block us anymore. That would be awesome,” Morris said, later clarifying that it was a joke. “But honestly, I mean, the OER is usually available elsewhere as well,” meaning other sites also host the text of these open course materials. For example: Joshua Halpern, Core Team Member of the Libretexts OER Project, says his group has uploaded around 150-200 books to their platform.
“And I don’t know, on our end, if there’s anything we can do to help people who find out that this content is suddenly blocked, I would say they should contact our customer service and try to get there. find help. Because there’s a good chance we’re trying to help them,” Morris says.
The move also sparked questions about whether Lumen was changing its mind about OER.
The company says it’s accommodation expenses.
Course Hero taking over hosting doesn’t mean hosting REL is no longer part of Lumen’s mission and doesn’t signal a sea change, Lumen Academic Director David Wiley said in an email interview. email with EdSurge.
“While we stopped hosting OER that we didn’t support [referring to the community-created OER content transferred to Course Hero]we continue to host a large collection of highly effective OERs that we support,” Wiley wrote, calling Lumen’s connection to OERs “unchanged.”
Lumen can offer courseware built from OER “much cheaper” than they can offer courseware built from royalty-paying content, Wiley claims, adding that they can use the data to improve the effectiveness of their course offerings, which is ultimately “core to our mission to improve student outcomes.”
Relationship with publishing
For some, the change in hosting reflects a bigger change in publishing.
In recent years, major publishers have moved away from textbooks in favor of digital homework platforms, says Steel Wagstaff, product manager for Pressbooks, a company that makes open-source software. And that has also changed OER: open-licensed materials are no longer just textbooks, but tutorials, Wagstaff argues.
Libretext’s Halpern suggests that there’s also a shift underway in OER. OpenStax closed its community creation program, CNX, he says. And Pressbooks too recently transitioned its individual author plans from OER to a subscription modelafter expanding the editorial features.
“I think Lumen has had a narrowing of their product focus, to serve a very specific function or need in the world,” Wagstaff says.
Lumen aims to close the achievement gap of disadvantaged students, for which they received a Gates Foundation grant earlier this year. They believe this can be done effectively, with openly licensed content, using its courseware platform, which is cheaper than platforms from major publishers like McGraw Hill, Cengage or Pearson, says Wagstaff.
If your main interest in OER is to adopt a book for free, then the change in hosting isn’t that bad, except maybe people “get suspicious” that Course Hero is the one hosting the content , he said.
However, it may be more important, he says, if the interest is revising and remixing the content. Although the content is openly licensed, it is conceivably more difficult for technical reasons to edit and make copies of the content on Course Hero’s platform, depending on what Course Hero does to host the content, he suggests.