Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Course Material Republishing Sites Or Plagiarism Resource?

Inside Higher Education has a story, "Course Hero or Course Villain?" about a slew of new course material republishing sites that purport to be making life easier for students, like a gigantic study group.

Aside from the parties and networking opportunities, one of the perennial perks of Greek Life has been the coveted “test file” — a collection of past exams and papers from various courses.

A new breed of study-buddy sites offers these resources to everybody, not just those who have endured Greek initiation rites. Companies such as Notehall [motto: Buy and Sell Class Notes], Knetwit, and have long hosted online markets where students can buy or sell class notes. Now, sites such as Course Hero and invite students to post and download syllabuses, worksheets, essays, previous exams, and many other course materials.

At Course Hero, a site that lately has been the subject of much hand-wringing among campus information technology officers, users can either shell out $30 for a month-long subscription or pay in uploaded documents. Forty documents equals one month of access to all the files posted by the site’s users. The company says millions have visited the site since it was unveiled a year and a half ago.

The purpose of Course Hero, according to David J. Kim, the company’s president and CEO, is to “maximize and accelerate academic breakthroughs by students.” By providing a place where users can share documents and communicate on discussion boards, Kim said, the site allows students across the world to leverage others’ knowledge in order to deepen their own — like any study group, but exponentially larger. The webmaster of makes similar statements, that his site "...allows users to upload law school outlines and view outlines uploaded by other students. is a 100% free resource. We do not charge our user a single penny and we do not spam." However, when I look at, I do see several instances of links to professors' own handouts and materials.

Some professors and administrators, however, have chafed at the idea of a site that encourages students to take professors' intellectual output, post it without permission, and then allow a company to sell access to it for profit. Note that OutlineSumo is not-for-profit, giving away the links for free. However, if professors are unhappy about their intellectual content running loose on the web, they should periodically check these sites.

“If I put the time and effort into developing a brief summary of a class I was teaching or a particular lesson, I would be extremely disappointed if it were put on the Internet and people were making a profit off of it, especially without my permission,” said Gina Mieszczak, who taught at DePaul University for three years before joining the Illinois Institute of Technology as a network security administrator.
I went to Course Hero, which is organized by state, and browsed around Massachusetts law schools a bit. To tell the truth, most of what students have put up there is pretty useless trash. In order to meet the 40 documents free subscription target, students seem to have uploaded professors' articles, student law review notes, odd hand-outs, and pretty much whatever they could get their hands on in digital format. They also seem not to care much what bucket they dump the stuff into. I found BC in Massachusetts confused with the University of British Columbia, though I think that's the site administrator, not the students. But the students seem to be dropping duplicate copies of the same materials in Con Law II and Health Law course slots, regardless of what the materials appear to be: client letters (copied twice), and even a Spanish-language comparison of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, all in the Constitutional Law II tab for Boston College. There is a syllabus and a handout from a professor, as well as a student outline. At the Suffolk site, it's all law review articles. At DePaul University, in Illinois, the Law site is a bunch of tables, possibly from a university self-study or accreditation, surveying different student groups' satisfaction with their decision to attend the school. In short, despite the article, for law schools, unless the loading on Course Hero changes in the future, it is such a worthless site for students that it is likely to remain a no-worry site for posting final exams or papers to plagiarize. The earlier listed sites may be more to worry about... for now. So far, does not carry any material from Suffolk, though it has several other Massachusetts law schools, and it is focused entirely on law schools across the U.S. and Canada. Concerned faculty and administrators should be checking sites regularly.

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