Study blues: Where using online study materials can go wrong

It’s 11:42 p.m.

You frantically race against the clock to get that assignment in by 11:59 p.m. You told yourself you wouldn’t procrastinate like this again, but here you are, scrambling to complete your homework as if your life depends on it.

11:46 p.m. 

The minutes tick by faster. You’ve already factored what grade you need in this class to get your dream GPA and you’re so close. So, in a moment of sheer panic, you turn to Google.

When the results display, you find one source that matches your question perfectly … too perfectly. You click on the link and lo-and-behold you find not just that question, but your entire assignment. Copy. Paste.

11:58 p.m. 

Confidently and guiltily, you hit submit.

That search is where it all goes wrong, according to those who enforce Arizona State University’s academic dishonesty policies.

Study websites like Studyblue, Course Hero, Chegg and others make documents with all of the answers to an assignment or test readily available to students at the click of a button.

Privied information that feels like contraband often pops up in student's search engine queries, linking them to sites that appear to be legitimate study tools.

Something about these “study sites” always felt wrong to me, and I was determined to figure out what it was. So, I started with my most basic question: is it illegal for students to share the exact answers for course materials on a website?

Legal Trouble

The short answer is “yes,” Kimberly Holst, a professor at ASU law school says to me over the phone. 

“There is definitely potential that a student could get into legal trouble,” Holst says.

Technically, a professor or school could own the copyright to the material, and if that information is posted online without consent, that is copyright infringement, she says.

“Under the copyright protections, the person who creates the work is in control of how the work is circulated,” Holst says.

However, schools probably would not go as far as to sue, she says.

Schools typically have their own ways of dealing with the cases and a suit against a student would be a longer, more expensive process, Holst says.

So, there. My work was done, right?

Wrong. I may have had my original question answered, but now I wanted to dive deeper into the issue and find out what schools and students had to say about the use of study sites for college classes.

The Schools

To answer the question of how schools respond to the use of these sites, I turned to two schools at ASU: The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and The Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. 

“Sites like Course Hero have come before the Cronkite board because students have seen it as a study material,” Mark Lodato, Cronkite School assistant dean, told me, adding that there’s a big difference between students referencing materials for ideas about format and approach versus students submitting copied material as if it were their own.

In his capacity as assistant dean of Cronkite, he also chairs the school’s standards committee.

Although Lodato couldn’t give me specific information about cases, he says the majority of cases at the Cronkite School “come down to the point where students feel they’re under pressure and have no other options.”

But, on average, Lodato says the Cronkite School sees few cases of academic dishonesty.

“We’re fortunate that the Cronkite academic integrity policy is very clear, so we see very few cases of academic dishonesty,” he says.

That’s a contrast to the 250 to 300 cases Assistant Dean Brian Skromme says he estimates the Fulton school has per year. In his position as assistant dean, Skromme processes all of the academic dishonesty cases that come through the Fulton school.

With his hands folded over his small office conference table, Skromme tells me, his general rule is that the exchange of electronic files between students is bad and is the first turn down wrong path. Sending email, sharing a flash drive, borrowing information off of a friend’s laptop and even use of study sites to share materials is included in his blanket rule, he says.

“You’ve got to be careful to protect your own interests because sometimes you could be facilitating something,” Skromme says, adding it doesn’t matter if it was intentional or unintentional.

The Fulton school, he tells me, has even called back people after graduation because their work was being used improperly — sometimes knowingly and sometimes after their work was stolen from something like an online portfolio.

“If you post something on a public site, it’s as if you’re walking down a public mall, handing out copies of your work to everyone you see,” he says with a chuckle.

Typically, Skromme says that if they are aware that copyrighted information — such as an exam or a review guide — is on a website, the school will contact the website and ask that it be taken down.

“Most of the sites will comply if they receive a notice of copyright infringement,” he said.

To Use or Not To Use

When asked how students should be using these sites, if at all, both assistant deans told me students should air of the side of caution.

“Those sites are dangerous for students if they are used in the wrong way,” Lodato told me.

He says that in his experience, most students realize that using the information on these sites is wrong, but ignore the feeling.

“Students should recognize gut feeling and say ‘wait a minute it’s time to step back,’” Lodato says. “Nothing's going to derail their academic careers faster than stepping over that line.”

Skromme says he believes that the best way that students can protect themselves from getting into trouble with study websites by steering clear of them completely.

“Our biggest concern isn’t to prosecute students, we’re more concerned with academic integrity.”

Skromme says the school encourages students to help each other learn because that’s one of the best ways students can learn.

“Our motto in engineering is that engineering is a team sport because nobody gets through engineering school completely on their own – that’s extremely rare.”

The Sites

I had a chance to talk to talk to a representative from Chegg, a website that sells study tools, tutor assistance and textbooks to students, to narrow down exactly what the website expects of its users.

User Liberman, vice president of communications for Chegg, says there are two facets to Chegg Study.

The first facet is textbook help.

“The proper way to think of that is as a study guide and as help for learning and mastering the materials,” Liberman says.

You can get an answer anywhere but learning how to actually solve the problem is what Chegg Study is supposed to help you with, he says.

The second part of Chegg Study is expert Q&A where students can query a database of more than 7 million answers and get solutions back immediately, almost all the time, Liberman says. And even if the question isn’t in the database, students can expect a response back in about 4 hours, he added.

“But again, that shouldn’t be used to do your homework,” he says. “It should be used to help you understand the problem and how to go about solving it.”

Out of their 1 million subscribers, Chegg receives very few complaints of academic dishonesty per year, Liberman says.

Course Hero and Studyblue did not respond to my requests for comment.

The Students

Alex Lee, a sophomore studying electrical engineering at ASU, uses Chegg everyday for the textbook solutions.

“I practice and then check the solution on Chegg,” he says. “Studyblue has flashcards, so I use them to review for my final exam."

Lee pays for accounts on all three major sites — Chegg, Studyblue and CourseHero — and says they are important resources for his studying.

Other ASU students, like Michael Du, a computer science freshman, don’t use the sites frequently themselves but know others that do.

Du says he knows “quite a bit” of people that use the sites as a crutch as opposed to a tool in high school.

“I assume that is going to carry over (to college),” he said.

Alex Salaices, a interdisciplinary studies junior at ASU, told me he doesn’t use the sites after he used one and was prompted to pay for a subscription.

But according to him, students don’t even have to visit a site to be prompted to join.

“In one of my classes we get spam from an ‘official notes taker,’” Salaices says, putting air quotes around the phrase. “But she really works for StudySoup and wants you to subscribe.”

Salaices says that some of his classmates might buy into this but probably only at the last minute, the night before an exam.

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