Education

What a Homework Help Site’s Move to Host Open Educational Resources Could Mean

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In May, the homework-help site that relies on student-generated content, Course Hero, dipped its toes into freely available, openly licensed alternatives known as Open Educational Resources, or OER, course materials.

The company took over hosting some popular OER offerings hosted by Lumen Learning, a courseware provider that argues that OER can make higher education more equitable.

When educators stumbled onto the fact that hosting had changed hands, it provoked a backlash. Educators expressed their displeasure on social media and in OER discussion groups, in part because of Course Hero itself, which some educators feel encourages students to cheat with the course notes and other materials posted there, but also because the deal wasn’t announced, and they felt that its parameters were unclear.

Course Hero officials say that the negative reaction came as a surprise.

“Part 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 is still figuring out how the OER fits, Morris says. “I mean, there are some ways in which OER is sort of sacrosanct in the education community,” he adds. “And we want to make sure that we’re treating it as best that we can.”

Even the company isn’t sure exactly how the 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 why we didn’t openly talk about it, because we’re still in the process of integrating and figuring out how best it works in our library,” Morris says.

‘Stonewalling’

Others who are trying to get details on the deal have suggested that the companies are “stonewalling.”

It’s the secrecy of the deal and the lack of clarity around it that’s, at least in part, caused some of the reaction, according to Bryan Alexander, a futurist and senior scholar at Georgetown University.

In an interview with EdSurge, a Course Hero spokesperson declined to answer if any money changed hands as part of the deal, saying that it’s “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 the OER content brings. (Lumen has previously told EdSurge that they “did not sell any content.”)

It’s also unclear what this means for the larger picture of open educational resources, Alexander says. The business model for OER has always been difficult, he suggests, and Lumen handing over the content to Course Hero seems like it could plausibly be them agreeing with those who think there’s no good business case for OER.

Unanswered Questions

The choice of Course Hero as a host seems odd, Alexander adds, when there were other, less controversial options out there such as MERLOT System, an international association that supports OER, or the Internet Archive.

For some instructors and students, using the OER content is complicated by the fact that some campus networks have actually blocked Course Hero’s core service domains.

“As a representative of Course Hero, I would say, try to get your university to not block us anymore. That would be great,” Morris says, later clarifying that that was a joke. “But honestly, I mean, the OER is generally available other places as well,” meaning that other sites are also hosting the text from these open course materials. For example: Joshua Halpern, a core team member for the Libretexts OER project, says that his group moved over about 150 to 200 books to their platform.

“And I don’t know, on our end, if there’s something we can do to help with folks who find that that content is suddenly blocked, I would say they should reach out to our customer service folks and try to find support there. Because chances are, we’ll try to help them,” Morris says.

The move also prompted questions about whether Lumen is changing its views about OER.

The company says it’s about hosting expenses.

Course Hero taking over hosting does not mean that hosting OER is no longer part of Lumen’s mission and does not signal a sea-change, David Wiley, Lumen’s chief academic officer, said in an email interview with EdSurge.

“While we have stopped hosting OER that we did not support [referring to the community-created OER content transferred to Course Hero], we continue to host a large collection of highly effective OER that we do support,” Wiley wrote, characterizing Lumen’s connection to OER as “unchanged.”

Lumen can offer courseware built from OER “far less expensively” than they can offer courseware built from royalty-bearing content, Wiley claims, adding that they can use data to improve the efficacy of their course offerings, which is ultimately “central to our mission to improve outcomes for students.”

Relationship to Publishing

For some, the hosting change speaks to a larger shift in publishing.

In recent years, major publishers have dropped textbooks in favor of digital homework platforms, says Steel Wagstaff, a product manager for Pressbooks, a company that makes open source software. And that’s changed OER, too: Openly licensed materials aren’t just about textbooks anymore, but about courseware, Wagstaff argues.

Halpern of Libretext suggests there’s a shift going on in OER as well. OpenStax has closed its community authoring program, CNX, he points out. And Pressbooks also recently switched its individual OER author plans to a subscription model, after expanding 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 has set its sights on closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, for which they received a grant from the Gates Foundation earlier this year. They believe that that can be done effectively, with openly licensed content, using its courseware platform, which is cheaper than the platforms of major publishers like McGraw Hill, Cengage or Pearson, Wagstaff says.

If your main interest in OER is to adopt a book for free, then the hosting change isn’t such a big deal, except perhaps that people “feel scuzzy” about Course Hero being the ones hosting the content, he says.

However, it may be a bigger deal, he says, if the interest is in revising and remixing the content. Although the content has an open license, it’s conceivable that it will be harder for technical reasons to edit and make copies of the content on Course Hero’s platform, depending on what Course Hero is doing to host the content, he suggests.

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