• Flux Magazine

"What is Academic Integrity in the Sharing Economy?" by Dean Hollis Robbins

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

A few weeks ago, a faculty member emailed me to ask whether uploading a paper to Course Hero fell under the definition of academic dishonesty. What is Course Hero? I asked.


I took a look: https://www.coursehero.com. Course Hero’s tagline, “Get Unstuck,” promotes the idea of college students as baffled, stumped, seeking a helping hand. What do they need? “Course specific study materials” uploaded by fellow students. There are thousands of items available, from assignments to papers submitted just weeks ago. You can upload your own to unlock what you need.


Is uploading a paper dishonest, when you know it will probably be ‘borrowed’ in some form or another by another student? It’s a complicated question — on the one hand students can do what they want with their papers; on the other hand, Course Hero clearly entices students with the exchange, suggesting that sharing academic materials is a wholesome practice.


For students who have grown up in the era of Soundcloud, Spotify, Uber, Lyft, Chegg, GitHub, Lime, Bird, and bike share apps, Course Hero may seem like a logical part of the sharing economy. Why own goods when you can borrow them for your own purposes whenever you want?


In the software world, the open source software movement is all about sharing code and collaborating on projects. Turnitin, the plagiarism detection company, has already begun to address the ways that commonplace sharing of code has complicated questions of academic dishonesty in computer science https://www.turnitin.com/blog/three-unique-academic-integrity- challenges-in-computer-science


Is sharing paragraphs of written work the same as sharing lines of code? Since learning about Course Hero I’ve asked around and found that most Sonoma State deans and most Arts & Humanities faculty members have never heard of the site. Two professors sat in my office with their mouths open and head in their hands looking at assignments from their classes last spring. One professor familiar with Course Hero told me that the Chancellor’s office had been asked to address concerns about plagiarism and copyright violations. “We look forward to exploring ways to educate both students and faculty about their roles and responsibilities related to class materials and students’ notes,” was the reply.


For me, the critical questions go beyond the issue of whether uploading (or downloading) a paper from Course Hero is dishonest (my short answer: yes).


We need to ask: Why do students put their names on their assignments except to say, “this is my work”?


Faculty members should recognize that young people are coming of age in a sharing economy and we need to have a campus wide conversation about how certain products — products of intellectual labor — need to remain part of the ownership economy, even as so many products once traditionally owned (music, movies, books, clothes, cars, bikes, scooters) are normalized as goods to be shared. Discussions of intellectual property and the provenance of ideas should take place in every university course.


We need to ask: Why do faculty members ask students to write essays and take quizzes and turn them in for a grade? What is it assignments are meant to assess?


Supporters of Course Hero argue that students in fact need help completing assignments, particularly students new to college or students taking a class outside their comfort zone. Professors are busy or maybe a student has a job and can’t make it to office hours. With online classes, you may never meet the professor at all. Course Hero offers a glimpse of fellow students’ work and past class assignments. Before enrolling, students can assess whether a course is a good investment of time and energy. If students are already enrolled and “stuck,” the site may be more welcoming than office hours.


Perhaps some faculty can do a better job telling students what they’re trying to asses and why it’s important that work be original and “owned” by the student.


We need to acknowledge that there is a gray area involving ownership of ideas as our economy moves toward increased collaboration, sharing, teamwork, and collective ownership. And yet academic integrity still matters: individual students are graded individually. Grades aren’t shared.


We need to ask: How can we empower students to believe they are capable of better work than what I’ve seen on Course Hero?


Here’s a real opportunity for faculty. Most of what I’ve seen on Course Hero is pretty mediocre. Most Sonoma State students I’ve had the privilege to speak with about classes are smart, dedicated, thoughtful, and imaginative. If students are logging on to Course Hero to remind themselves that their own ideas are more interesting than what they see, I suppose it serves a wholesome purpose. In short: look if you must, but know that you can do better.

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