Can an edtech critic change a controversial homework help site from the inside?
Sean Michael Morris knows he’s cultivated a certain “ethos” throughout his career in higher education — as a self-proclaimed critic of edtech and an advocate of helping professors improve their teaching.
So he wasn’t surprised when his recent job change sparked a firestorm of criticism on academic Twitter and social media this week. The news: He quit his job at the University of Colorado at Denver to become an executive at Course Hero, a controversial homework help website ridiculed by many professors.
The company he joins, which is valued at more than $3.6 billion, is struggling to argue that it prohibits its users from downloading materials from the site for the purpose of cheating or uploading homework or exam answers. But in reality, both things happen routinely. An official student guide for students from another campus at the University of Colorado states: “One of the big problems with Course Hero is that the website provides all the tools you need when a student wants to cheat. It’s a temptation for students looking for exam answers and wanting to cheat in class.”
For some fellow academics, the course hero’s vibe is simply at odds with Morris’ ethos and philosophy.
Morris says he has long advocated offering a “critique” of edtech. “My focus was primarily on things like learning management systems and supervisory services and plagiarism detection services and things like that,” he told EdSurge this week. “Because I feel like they directly intervene in the educational process.”
We wanted to better understand what Morris’ role on Course Hero entails and why he accepted the gig. So we asked for an interview and he agreed (although the company demanded that we send them a recording of the interview after it was over, presumably to avoid misquoting).
The job at Course Hero will be full-time, so not only has Morris left his university job, but he will also step aside as director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab, which hosts an annual event to help professors improve their teaching. That lab will continue as before, and Morris plans to be involved, but not as director, he says. He will also be stepping back from active work on Hybrid Pedagogy magazine, which he says he has spent less time on in recent months. It’s a question of his personal “range,” he says.
Morris’ new title at Course Hero is Vice President, Academics. A large part of his professional responsibilities is to build a community of professors dedicated to the company. This includes coordinating the company’s annual education summit and its faculty newsletter.
“One of my main goals at Course Hero is to continue to grow the community,” he says. “Which was an interesting thing this week.”
Close colleagues defended Morris on social media this week.
“It’s critical that educators and edtech companies talk to each other,” tweeted Jesse Stommel, co-founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. “These platforms shouldn’t be something that happens to students and teachers, but something that they help create. I have no doubt that Sean is the right person to have these conversations @CourseHero and beyond.”
Here are the highlights of our conversation with Sean Michael Morris, slightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: You said in one of your tweets this week that the fact that Course Hero reached out to you is “a testament to their commitment to changing and improving their platform.” But I’ve also seen others on Twitter concerned that it could also be a publicity stunt or tokenism. That the company could say, “Hey, we hired this guy, so we’re fine,” without necessarily changing any specific aspects of their service. What do you say about this concern?
Sean Michael Morris: If I had been hired as a figurehead and problem solver, I would be really ashamed. But I don’t think that happened.
When they approached me, I was incredibly skeptical. I thought, ‘Why is a tech company approaching me? you know my story You know who I am. I don’t understand what’s going on here.’ And so I took the first job interview. I took the first meeting with a lot of questions and even throughout the interview process, every time I was looking for red flags I was searching, “Is this a publicity stunt? Do they just want someone with credibility to come on board so they suddenly have credibility by association?’
And that’s what I’ve been looking for, and over and over I’ve been convinced it’s not. I still believe that when I’m in meetings with people and we’re really talking about the issues that are with the product and the things that we’re trying to change. … I am very interested in helping to solve these problems – not so much for the good of the company as for the good of the students and teachers – because I am constantly loyal to them. I am primarily an educator. And when I took the job, I actually said to them, ‘So I have to be myself when I take this job.’
The fact remains that the service offers materials to help students study, which in some cases are the answer keys to a test. And many professors don’t see this as healthy study habits, but as either laziness or cheating. I know that users sign statements that they will not cheat, but you can find examples of students telling each other that’s why they wanted to buy the product. Is there a way to square this? Even with someone with the best of intentions and background, can you take this site that was created to help students cut corners and somehow fail?
There’s a lot… I think the company is evolving. I can speak to what I see when I speak to people there and that is that their pedagogy is student centered and they genuinely care about students being empowered in their education – that agrees with me. That totally agrees with me.
The Bigger Problem With Fraud: Of course, this was a problem before the Internet existed. … And I remember when the internet became a lot more accessible to everyone and educators said, ‘Students are going to look at all the answers they need. You can just google it and find out.”
And there was a huge fear of fraud. Then there is always a fear of cheating. … Obviously there are problems with intellectual property being shared against people’s will [on Course Hero]. They have teams at Course Hero for that, they’re working on it. But we live in a world where user-generated content makes up most of the internet, and it’s a constant struggle.
Do you have a benchmark in mind yourself, where you want to say that if things don’t go well at some point, you decide that it doesn’t make sense and quit the job?
I had a feeling you would ask that. … I thought about it. I was like, OK, where’s my limit? At what point do I say, OK, no, we can’t do this. And to be honest, I don’t know the answer yet. I’m brand new to this job and still trying to get my feet wet. I’m trying to see what the possibilities are.
[But] If there’s a point at which “No”, then yes, I will leave.
I took this job because they wanted someone who represented my ethos. And if it turns out that my ethos is not compatible with the direction of the company, then we would have to part ways.
That happened before. I was hired by another company some time ago [Instructure], and worked for her for a short time. And while they were great – the people were great and I really liked them. There was simply no room for my work. And so I went and went from there to Middlebury College.
What I hear from professors on a practical level is that when professors see material like exam answers on the website that violate Course Hero policies, it is time consuming to report it and have it removed, and it does take time , buckled professors. Can you think of changes in the process to make this less burdensome for the professors?
I can only talk about it lightly because I don’t know many details to be honest.
On the student side, we do everything we can to stop people from uploading things that shouldn’t be uploaded. And we’re trying to do more, and we’re always thinking of new ways to let students know they shouldn’t be doing this.
On the takedown side, I know there’s a lot of talk about streamlining the process [while still following copyright law.]
Why were you interested in this performance? What makes you do that?
I argued a long, long time ago… that one of the problems with edtech is actually that educators had no say in what was happening. And when that invitation was offered to me, I thought, “Well, here’s an opportunity for an educator to be deeply involved in the production and in the development of this—the development of this product. And that’s one of the reasons I want to reach out to educators, I want them to be involved in this discussion.…
I’ve always done things in collaboration, in community. I see this as a way, not just for me but for many educators, to have a voice in what is happening. This is the opportunity. That’s the green flag, if you will.
Did the pushback surprise you?
I predicted that would happen. I mean, once that happened, more people would start talking about Course Hero and Course Hero’s problems. I expected more people to ask me the kind of questions you ask me – like “What do you see as an opportunity?”.
But yes, the pushback was exactly what I had in mind. And I just hope that in the long run people will see that I did it for a reason.