Clicking onto their favorite courses at the end of May, educators found that they were getting redirected somewhere else.
They were trying to prep summer courses by linking to the freely available, openly licensed alternatives known as Open Educational Resources, or OER, content offered by Lumen Learning, a courseware provider that argues that OER can be a tool in making higher education more equitable.
To their surprise, however, the educators found themselves not on Lumen’s website but on Course Hero, a homework-help site that’s blocked by some higher ed institutions for its use by some students as a cheating tool.
There was confusion.
Lumen had turned over its catalog of “community-created course content,” it became clear, to Course Hero, Inc., the edtech “unicorn” and homework help site. The content wasn’t sold, the hosting was just handed off to free up resources, according to Lumen.
In May, Course Hero quietly began putting the content on its site. The result is that clicking on a course content listing from Lumen—whether it’s “Boundless Accounting” or “African American History and Culture” or another course—will likely send you off to Course Hero, where it’s being hosted.
If it wasn’t clear what was going on at first, it’s perhaps because this wasn’t announced. The community of users was left on their own to figure out what was happening, causing them to turn to an OER Google Group.
It “doesn’t strike us as especially newsworthy,” a representative from Course Hero said via email when asked why notice of the deal wasn’t sent to the community, though they said they will “find an optimal time to share the resources with our users if and when appropriate.” Both Course Hero and Lumen declined to talk with EdSurge, but spokespeople did answer a couple of questions via email.
Who’s Using the Content?
For Lumen, the decision to hand off the content was because of who’s using it.
It generates a lot of web traffic. In 2021, Lumen says, its online course materials drew in 350 million page views. Web traffic like that incurs hosting and supporting costs which can look unappetizing when the company paying them doesn’t feel it’s supporting their main mission.
Part of the problem, Lumen officials said, is that most of the hundreds of millions of viewers aren’t engaging with the content in a deep or sustained way. Lumen says that 94 percent of that traffic lingered on the page for only 50 to 60 seconds, which they interpret as people using the site for reference, like you might use Wikipedia. Only about 3 percent of users, in contrast, are students in the U.S. or Canada who’re accessing the content via direct link, like you might expect someone using links from an official course to do. Whether that 3 percent is officially through an institution is unknown, according to Lumen.
To Lumen, that spells pricey “distraction.”
Handing off hosting of the content, the company says, will allow it to focus on its own original courseware. For example: The company recently launched new courseware for U.S. History II.
To some professors, the deal has sparked worry that the content which got handed off will become hidden behind Course Hero’s subscription paywall.
Course Hero has pledged to keep the resources “free to all faculty and learners,” a spokesperson said, and they’re “hopeful” the content will have broader reach on their site.
But there’s another problem: Course Hero’s domain—like other companies such as Chegg—is blocked by the content filtering of some districts. That prevents educators in those districts from using the links.
As someone posted in the Google Group for OER users, “I don’t know whose bright idea it was, but if Course Hero wants to get into legitimate course material hosting business, they’ll have to change their name (or at least their domain name).” Below the message was a screenshot showing how the domain was blocked in their school district.
Places like LibreTexts, a nonprofit OER project, have reassured educators that they host a lot of the Lumen content as well.
For some educators though, the news was distressing for other reasons. Course Hero, they feel, facilitates academic dishonesty—one of the reasons it’s blocked by some institutions—and, if the content is flying under their banner, it makes the content automatically less valuable to them.
It’s a complaint that Course Hero has heard before. The company says that it exists to “democratize” access to study resources and says that adding the Lumen courses will increase the amount of high-quality content its community has access to.
Asked to directly comment on the concerns that Course Hero’s reputation may devalue the content, the Lumen spokesperson declined to answer directly, instead saying: “Our core focus is to engage directly with faculty members and institutions to use open content, learning tools, and evidence-based teaching practices to improve outcomes in education.”