We Don’t Need Another Hero

cw: trauma, sexual abuse, addiction

To begin, this isn’t an essay about any one person, or even about Course Hero really (though I‘m going to talk about them a lot). It’s an essay wondering about what it means to live as an ethical person in 2022, specifically, what it means to live, work, teach, learn, and design as an ethical educator in 2022.

It’s also not an essay where I claim to be a moral arbiter, here to guide the ethics of higher ed. I quit Facebook a few years ago, because I think they hold a great deal of responsibility for moving us closer to doom, but I still poke around Instagram (which is owned by Facebook.) Authors note: I refuse to call that company by their new name because I refuse. I wear a diamond on my left ring finger that was not ethically sourced. I did not vote in our last local election. I’m a messy human like the rest of you.

But I try my best every day to live in such a way that I do as little harm as possible to myself and others. Even if it feels like I can’t do anything to help, I can at least try not to do harm. A teacher I follow, Laura McKowen, says, “No new destruction.” I really like that. Short and sweet. Some days I get closer to this ideal than others. Not a new concept of course. In the Buddhist tradition we are called to follow a path where we do not add to the suffering of the world, not to our own suffering and not to anyone else’s.

This is the mindset through which I consider our work in higher education, whether it’s for-profits or non-profits, old or new institutions. Is this organization creating new destruction? Are they affirming life (both human and across all species), or are they adding to the suffering of the world?

Y’all, those questions lead to messy answers. I’ve been reading and writing more about collective traumas and disasters lately for my work on trauma-aware teaching. I came across this, from Sandrine Revet:

The anthropology on disasters has shown that disasters do not even out inequalities, but, on the contrary, deepen and worsen them.

This is only going to get messier, and it will be the most messy for those who have been pushed out to the margins of society. We can’t talk about Course Hero without acknowledging the state of the world that surrounds it.

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

Course “Hero”

With that all said, I arrive back to where I started, which is to share my current thoughts and feelings on Course Hero, an ed tech company that has been making the rounds in higher ed news this week. I had heard of it once, maybe twice, before this week, and to be honest, had not paid very much attention to it at all. But when it showed up on Inside Higher Ed on Monday, I felt like it was worth closer examination.

I’m a middle path kind of gal, so I took a couple of days to learn out loud, to do my own research, and to listen to a variety of perspectives on Course Hero. I hope you’ll do the same. Don’t trust me. Trust what you see.

Many are writing, tweeting, and thinking about important concerns around copyright and cheating in CH. Does Course Hero profit from luring students into cheating? From everything I’ve seen, the answer is a resounding yes. Does Course Hero’s entire business model rely on luring students to cheat? They deny that claim, as one would expect. I encourage you to reflect deeply on that question for yourselves. Don’t trust me. Trust what you see.

Course Hero claims to be revolutionizing education through peer-to-peer learning. That’s an enticing claim. Students and educators can openly share study resources, papers, projects, and other learning artifacts to learn out loud together. Students can either pay a monthly fee or upload artifacts to gain access to unlocks (you can also earn unlocks by rating or referring others to CH). In other words, as best I can tell, if I want to look at someone else’s English comp paper, I can upload my intro to psych paper.

I encourage you to search for (or search up, as my son would say) “course hero unlocks” on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. You will find a vast network of individuals selling unlock codes. If you spend some time in this space, you will find sales pitches like this:

“Save your time and effort by getting documents, solutions and answers from us for your assignments and tasks.”

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about what this vast secondary economy says about the stated intentions of Course Hero. Don’t trust me. Trust what you see.

“My Trauma”

Last night, a Twitter friend of mine was tweeting about what she’d found when she poked around on Course Hero (some plagiarism, and a lot of struggling students making bad choices in the face of a lack of support). A thought popped into my head.

For the past two days, I’d been open to the possibility that maybe Course Hero had potential to make some good trouble, despite the concerns that they make millions off luring students to cheat.

Oh, did I not mention that? Course Hero was recently valued at 3.6 billion dollars. (Remember, don’t trust me. Trust what you see.)

But I’d tried to stay open. Traditional higher ed is a mess too, and certainly no college or university in this country, this world, can claim that it doesn’t do harm to students, staff, and faculty. “But maybe Course Hero has some potential?” I wondered.

Then, last night, the thought popped into my head about how often students tend to disclose trauma in their college essays. A big part of my work is focused on trauma-aware teaching (though I’m not a clinician, it’s important to note). Thanks to a helpful Twitter friend, I discovered Course Hero results that kick up from a search for “my trauma.”

There are nearly 16 million results. I spent ten minutes reading a few previews (I’m not an official CH member, so that’s all I can see.) That was all that I could stomach. I’m not going to share the link again here, because the thought of further exposing these students to harm sickens me. I have posted it on Twitter, which I wrestled with, and I’m sure you can find it yourselves.

There are hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of papers filled with students’ trauma disclosures. Students writing beautifully, thoughtfully, and courageously about the worst days or years of their lives. Students sharing specific details about prior sexual assaults. All with their names and colleges carefully typed in the heading at the top of the essay.

You too can earn a free unlock! Just upload that incredibly personal essay filled with your deepest traumas! Join the peer-to-peer learning movement!

Seems fair, right? I get a free unlock. You get 3.6 billion. A healthy, balanced power dynamic.

But Karen, maybe these students want to share their stories publicly? Aren’t we discounting their agency?

Well, remember, don’t trust me. Trust what you see.

Did those millions of students know what they were doing when they uploaded their essays? Were they acting from a place of agency, or were they being exploited by a billionaire?

Surely, since such sensitive content is in play, said billionaire must have coached students around their submissions. Right? They must have been crystal clear about privacy implications. Right? There must be systems in place to protect students with trauma histories, our students who are most vulnerable to exploitation. Right?

Here’s a screenshot of what students see when they create a new account in Course Hero:

By creating an account, you agree with Course Hero’s Terms of Use and Honor Code, and acknowledge that your personal information will be processed in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

How many of those millions of students do you think read these terms carefully, or at all? How often do you read the terms of use when you sign up for a new account? Let’s assume some read it. How many understood the dense legalese that I (someone with a master’s degree and beyond) had trouble understanding at times. How many? (Don’t trust me…)

And now, may I present to you, an excerpt from the terms of use:

What are the rights and obligations specific to my Submissions? We want you to know the following regarding your Submissions: Your Submissions are not private. Submissions are not private or confidential and may be read, collected, and used publically by others. To better protect your privacy, do not include information regarding your identity or contact information in Submissions that you post or upload to the Services.

Again, I invite you to trust what you see, and scan through some of the “My Trauma” submissions. Almost every one I read had a name and other identifying details attached to it.

I have to wonder how many of these students know that a random lady in Massachusetts who hasn’t left her house in two years is reading about their worst day, and that anyone in the world, including the people who harmed them, can access that content. I have to wonder if these students thought that Course Hero, a company that positions themselves as a trusted educational provider and partner, would protect them. I have to wonder if these students were just tricked into trading the story of their worst day for help with a math exam.

When done with true agency, of course, telling our trauma stories has a lot of power. But again, trauma survivors are also at immense risk for exploitation.

Agency or exploitation? I know what I see. What do you see?

In the face of greater instability and deepening inequalities, we’re all going to be called to identify our lines in the sand. Is Course Hero one of yours?

The nausea and racing heart I felt while reading those essays last night drew a line in the sand for me. Yes, there’s a part of me that longs to believe that a billionaire (or aliens — I’d welcome alien help) is coming to save us. But I’ll keep putting my money, time, and energy on the grassroots movements, the women doing decent, transformational work on a shoestring, and the rare companies that can promise no new destruction and who then actually practice what they preach.

But what do I know? You decide for yourselves. Don’t trust me. Trust what you see.

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I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.

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Karen Costa

Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.

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