Ethics of online study tools questioned


Kristin Lam, Editor-in-Chief

Through online services such as Chegg Study, StudyBlue, and Course Hero, databases of educational material are available to students. However, some users may question both the ethics and legality of these consumer platform companies who profit from these services.

Course Hero allows students to browse study resources by school, subject, standardized test or book. Seven million user-uploaded documents — including class notes, study guides and problem sets — are accessible in addition to 24/7 online tutor services and digital flashcard sets.

Social science teacher Lana Gentry said that it is fine to look up Powerpoint notes, lecture notes, study guides or any of that type of information that is going to help students learn the content.

“If you’re using the info how you should be, looking at your work and going, ‘Oh, I didn’t get that’ and getting all the info, it’s ethical because we did that legally, it was called the old fashioned way — study groups,” Gentry said. “That’s legal, that’s fine, that’s being smart.”

The catch to Course Hero is that premier membership is priced at $9.95 per month. Referring a friend or uploading certain quotas of documents can earn a few free months, but access is limited for free users. Similar services StudyBlue and Chegg Study charge $7 and $8.33 per month for unlimited usage respectively.

Math teacher Lucy Althoff said that these resources should be free information because she doesn’t think anyone should have to pay for material that is extra help.

“When I was in college I could access a lot of stuff easily,” Althoff said. “I learned I could Google anything to get help with almost anything for free.”

Koofers differs from other services in that it is free to all college and university students and faculty worldwide. On its website, Koofers claims it is designed to ensure that all students have equal access to the study materials they need to achieve their academic goals by providing a “level playing field” through access to testbanks, practice exams, professor ratings and grade distribution data, flashcards, a class schedule maker, and a job and internship matching service.

Not only are solution guides with step-by-step breakdowns of science and math problems at a student’s disposal on these websites, but files on or even of previously taken quizzes, exams, midterms and finals are posted as well.

However, Bear Creek’s academic honor code clearly classifies accessing test materials as cheating in its policy which states “any attempt to obtain an unfair advantage over others, by obtaining an exam prior to administration or other means” violates the school’s honor code.

Assistant Principal Dennis To said that tracking cheating done in this technologically savvy way is difficult. Although tests are potentially accessible on the internet free of charge to all students if they do enough digging, To said that it does not mean procuring them is not cheating and not taking an unfair advantage.

“Any form of dishonesty is considered cheating,” To said. “What we look into is the degree to which they cheated. There is a progressive discipline.”

To said such cases have not been reported to him, but unscrupulously accessing exam questions and answers online is classified as a high degree of cheating. An unfair advantage can have severe impact; it may alter the curve or result in the rest of the class receiving a lower grade.

Senior Brandon Miramontes said there’s a difference between having a practice test and having the actual test. Finding the answers online to an upcoming test is the equivalent to finding the test in the teacher’s classroom and taking pictures of the answers.

“What that does, is it has you just study what’s on the test, and you’re not actually learning what the material is,” Miramontes said. “So in the long run it’s hurting you, it’s not actually helping you. Yeah, you’re getting good grades, but if you’re required to know the answers to a final that the teacher made by themselves, it won’t be online.”

Additionally, whether or not teachers use materials created by publishers can significantly affect how easily students can find documents online. Senior Devin Pinzon said that she thinks a lot of teachers do get their tests out of the book.

“People can just look up the version or what the book is called and that’s how people can find answers to worksheets, homework, short answers, and stuff like that,” Pinzon said. “Some teachers who make their own tests make it more difficult for students to find the answers online.”

Publisher and teacher resources are not intended for student use. Gentry said that it is cheating to get information from publishers and different sources that put out exact tests, as well as to access data on publisher tests, notes, homework, or essay questions that students pass on to people for their own benefit.

Creating unique tests can also be difficult. Higher level classes tend to use publisher multiple choice tests because they are written like the AP tests and give students practice. Gentry said that questions on history and social science topics can only be written in so many ways.

When it comes to math, Althoff said that a lot of the basics have not changed either. She also pointed out that teachers have no control over how the standardized district benchmark tests, finals and national SBACs are written or distributed.

“Individual chapter tests are easier for teachers to recreate and change,” Althoff said. “It takes time, but it’s not very difficult as to where a final is much more difficult to have to recreate if students get a hold of it.”
In the end, many of these sites have a self-policing system that is not necessarily limited to a discussion on the generational issue of declining morality.

“As long as I have been alive, there are students who are lazy and want to just take the work from somebody else,” a teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “And there have been students who are not lazy; they want to do the work themselves and they want to learn. And they will go through the struggle of learning.”