EdSurge’s Daniel Mollencamp has published a piece called “What a Homework Help Site’s Move to Host Open Educational Resources Could Mean” about Lumen Learning’s deal with Course Hero to transfer hosting of those OER textbooks from Lumen’s site to Course Hero’s. The article contains a fair bit of speculation quotes from folks who I believe miss the mark on some basic facts and implications. I confess that I will engage in some informed speculation here in the sense that I have not engaged with on-the-ground reporting to confirm what I believe I know. Nevertheless, I believe I know some facts that contradict some of the speculation in the piece and put the transaction in a somewhat different light.
For most of this piece, I’m going to stick with what I believe to be the facts. I will take a little time in the last section to provide my own point of view. That said, there are strong feelings in pockets of the educational community about both of these companies. I will be treading lightly. If you want to read vehement critiques of these companies, their business models, and their values, you can find them elsewhere on the web.
The basic facts as I understand them
Here’s what I believe to be true:
- Lumen has had two branded lines of OER-based products:
- Waymaker is their flagship product line. They invest in editorial work and research to improve the content and software development to improve the underlying platform on which it is hosted.
- Candela are OER products that were contributed by the community but not actively maintained and improved by Lumen. They were hosted on a less capable platform. And, to my knowledge, they were free.
- Lumen transferred Candela products, but not Waymaker products, to Course Hero.
- Lumen received quite a bit of traffic to those free OER content. I seem to recall Kim telling me the number was in the millions of visits. That’s great for education but is also an expense for a small company. While I know some will dismiss the cost of hosting web pages on the internet, the cost of hosting content with that much traffic and keeping it accessible can add up over time.
- The business value of Candela courses to Lumen was far from clear. It’s not like students using the content for free were likely to become paying customers or convert their faculty to adopting Waymaker products. Again, hosting the content is a good thing to do. But every company has a limit of how much they can afford to invest in public-good work. I don’t know how much Candela costs to host and maintain relative to Lumen’s total revenues. I speculate that it was non-trivial.
- On the other hand, Course Hero’s primary clientele is students. Every user of Candela is a potential subscriber to Course Hero’s paid services. And Course Hero is a vastly bigger company. So the relative cost of hosting the content was smaller to them than to Lumen and the potential business benefit was larger.
- As I alluded to in my introduction, both companies have vocal detractors.
- In Lumen’s case, their primary critics tend to be within a subsection of the OER community and relate to which business models in relation to OER are considered “legitimate” or support the values of the OER community.
- In the case of Course Hero, the controversy is more widespread. They are criticized as being a “cheat site.” Some universities are blocking access to Course Hero from school networks and I hear periodic rumors of plans for legal action against the company, although I am not aware of any actual litigation.
- [Update] I have heard multiple complaints that Candela students were redirected from Lumen’s site to Course Hero’s site with no notification to instructors or universities, including paying customers. (See the correction below for more detail on “paying customers.”)
- I do not believe the content was editable on either site. I’m certain it’s not currently editable on Course Hero’s site and I’m fairly confident that it was not editable in Candela on Lumen’s site.
Corrections: A source informed me that I was mistaken on two fronts. First, Lumen did charge a low price for the version of Candela that integrated with LMSs. I do not believe it was a money maker for Lumen, and I’m confident that the free, non-integrated version got significant traffic. While this doesn’t change the overall business implications, I got the facts wrong. Unfortunately, this also means that some of those affected by the switch were paying customers.
Second, Candela did support editing.
First, the business logic for both companies is clear. Hosting OER content for free is a public service that has non-zero cost, particularly if it is successful at attracting significant volume. Hosting a catalog of free online textbooks simply costs less and buys more for a company like Course Hero than it does for a company like Lumen. I make not value judgment here, one way or the other. These are simple economics.
By I suspect—and this is pure speculation on my part—that Course Hero did pay Lumen, at least to cover the costs of supporting the content transfer. I don’t know the details of any potential transaction but I don’t see any ethical red flags with it, at least as a stand-alone issue. I’d have to see some sign of some other, ethically problematic quid pro quo which is not evident in the reporting.
Second, these details (assuming their accuracy) tend to cut against some of the commentary in the article. For example, while I respect Bryan Alexander, I don’t think the facts support the speculation that “Lumen handing over the content to Course Hero seems like it could plausibly be them agreeing with those who think there’s no good business case for OER.”
Likewise, Steel Wagstaff from Pressbooks, in my opinion, missed the mark on a couple of points. The first was when he suggested that “Although the content has an open license, it’s conceivable that it will be harder for technical reasons to edit and make copies of the content on Course Hero’s platform, depending on what Course Hero is doing to host the content.” My understanding is that it is neither easier nor harder. Neither platform supports native editing. To change the content, one would have to copy and paste the content in a platform that does support editing such as Google Docs or Pressbooks.
Correction: Steel was correct. Candela, unlike Waymaker, did allow for editing. (I’m not sure if it was available in the free version of the product; see the correction above.)
Wagstaff is also paraphrased in the article as saying, “If your main interest in OER is to adopt a book for free, then the hosting change isn’t such a big deal, except perhaps that people “feel scuzzy” about Course Hero being the ones hosting the content[.]”
This is where things get messy. And sometimes nasty.
Course Hero’s reputation and some circumscribed commentary
“Scuzzy” vastly understates the breadth and depth of feeling currently swirling around Course Hero. And that concern is likely the reason this transfer of free content between two companies generated enough noise to get the attention of EdSurge.
Before I get into further commentary, I want to state my priors here. I know the leadership of both companies. In Lumen’s case, I’ve known CEO Kim Thanos and her co-founder, David Wiley, for many years. I consider them to be friends. I trust their values even when I don’t agree with particular decisions. I know Course Hero CEO Andrew Grauer and his leadership team less well. But I have had a number of interactions with them, spent some time vetting them, and came away feeling good about the humans in charge. My best read on them, given the caveat that I don’t know them terribly well, is that they want to be constructive partners in supporting education. I have worked with both companies in the past (though not recently) and have no qualms or regrets about having done so. With that in mind, here’s my take on the story:
Currently, Course Hero is widely and often vehemently viewed as a bad actor that helps students cheat within a significant slice of university educators and administrators. It’s not particularly easy to get your website blocked by a major public university and yet I personally know of a handful that have blocked Course Hero. EdSurge likewise states that “some campus networks have actually blocked Course Hero’s core service domains”.
This state of affairs, combined with the companies’ mutual decision to roll out the change quietly, had two serious implications. First, universities that have encouraged students to use free OER hosted by Lumen suddenly started hearing from their students that they cannot access these resources. Second, students could not access those resources because the content has been quietly moved to a web site that important university stakeholders decided was harmful enough that they blocked it from university networks. They believe that Course Hero undermines their policies and contributes to students’ failure to learn. To add insult to injury, I heard from folks at several of these universities that they first heard about the switch from panicked students who couldn’t access their course materials after the term had started rather than from Lumen or Course Hero beforehand. These leaders feel blindsided.
Both companies appear to have been taken by surprise at the level of backlash. In fact, Course Hero’s Vice President of Academics Sean Michael Morris is quoted in the EdSurge article as saying, “Part of this news cycle around this caught us off guard.”
Morris’s reaction is shockingly tone-deaf from beginning to end. First of all, referring to this reaction as a “news cycle” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the seriousness of the brand problem Course Hero has. He actually jokes about universities unblocking their site as a solution to the problem. And he never once addresses the underlying issue of trust that caused the site to be blocked in the first place.
This has been my deepest concern with Course Hero, which has only grown with time. Although I still believe they are not intentional bad actors, they have the instincts of a consumer company catering to students and show little understanding of universities. And while they have made earnest efforts to reach out to and understand their critics—I have participated in some of those conversations—they demonstrate at times like these that they remain dangerously naive about the stakeholders inside the institutions they want to work with.
They have made good inroads with adjunct faculty. But incidents like this one, and their reaction to it, suggest that they have made little progress in understanding, much less winning over, the kinds of stakeholders who can block on-campus access to their site or even initiate legal action. And to be clear, I have heard more than one senior campus leader intimate that such actions were being contemplated.
Lumen, while it has been quieter, also seems to have been caught flat-footed. I am hearing from multiple long-time customers who have been put in a very difficult position by their lack of advance communication. Lumen needs its advocates and can’t afford to burn these bridges.
This was entirely avoidable
The two companies missed a chance to turn a potential blow-back into a trust-winning opportunity. They could have done something like the following:
- Announced in advance that the two companies are working on a sustainability strategy to keep the OER accessible for free to students
- Selectively sought input from Candela-using educators and campuses about the best way to do this
- Created a separate site with a separate URL, hosted by Course Hero, that would have bought them more goodwill at the cost of some easy customer conversion
I don’t want to pretend that everything would have been rosy had they taken this path. The companies each have critics that would have come after them no matter what they did. So I understand the impulse to do this quietly.
But it obviously didn’t save them from the slings and arrows. Instead, it alienated Lumen’s allies while reinforcing rather than softening Course Hero’s reputation of being an enemy of university folk.
To sum up my own reading of the events in question, this story does not portend doom and gloom for OER. Nor does it provide convincing evidence of nefarious profiteering by Lumen. This is the story of two companies, each driven by enlightened self-interest, that screwed up a mutual effort to preserve access to free educational resources with a gob-smacking level of tone-deafness.
This story also tells us something about how OER does and doesn’t work in supporting different sorts of business models (e.g., Lumen’s and Course Hero’s, which are starkly different).
These companies obviously have some thinking to do and need to do a far better job of staunching the bleeding.
In the meantime, the academic community needs to get far more sophisticated in their thinking about how sustainability works when OER gets used as infrastructure in a for-profit EdTech world. Keep in mind that another option Lumen had at its disposal was to simply turn Candela off. That would have benefitted nobody.
I’m not going to pretend I have an answer or even pretend that I believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer. But we need better answers about sustainability at scale, balancing cost against quality, and harnessing the theoretical affordance of editability into something that actually serves students. I believe those answers will come, in part, from studying how different EdTech companies make their money and how the business mechanics interact with OER. After all, the foundation of OER is a copyright license. It may hack the private property system but it does not live outside of that system. We don’t have to look for evil motives to understand why Lumen and Course Hero thought moving stewardship of Candela might be good for everyone. It’s actually pretty straightforward.
So how do we cultivate companies whose business interests benefit from promoting affordable, quality education? And where does OER fit into that equation?