Sean Michael Morris knows that he has cultivated a certain “ethos” over his career in higher education—as a self-described critic of edtech and a champion of helping professors improve their teaching.
So he was not surprised when his latest job change led to a firestorm of criticism on academic Twitter and social media this week. The news: He left his job at the University of Colorado at Denver to become an executive at Course Hero, a controversial homework-help site derided by many professors.
The company he’s joining, valued at more than $3.6 billion dollars, takes pains to argue that it forbids its users from downloading materials off the site for the purpose of cheating, or to upload answers to homework or exams. But in reality, both of those things happen routinely. As an official guide for students at another University of Colorado campus notes: “One of the big problems with Course Hero is that if a student wants to cheat, the website offers all the tools they need to do so. It provides a temptation to students who are looking for exam answers and want to cheat in class.”
To some fellow academics, the Course Hero vibe is simply at odds with Morris’ ethos and philosophy.
Morris says he has long been dedicated to offering a “critique” of edtech. “My focus has primarily been on things like learning management systems and proctoring services and plagiarism-detection services and that sort of thing,” he told EdSurge this week. “Because I feel like they have, they directly interfere with the educational process.”
We wanted to better understand what Morris’ role at Course Hero entails, and why he took the gig. So we asked for an interview, and he was game (though the company stipulated that we send a recording of the interview to them after it was over, presumably to guard against any misquoting.)
The job at Course Hero will be full time, and so Morris not only left his university job, but he also will step aside as director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab, which runs an annual event to help professors improve their teaching. That lab will continue as before, and Morris plans to be involved, but not as director, he says. He will also step back from active work on the journal “Hybrid Pedagogy,” which he says he was already spending less time with in recent months. That was a matter of his personal “bandwidth,” he says.
Morris’ new title at Course Hero is vice president, academics. Much of his job duties involve cultivating a community of professors engaged with the company. That includes coordinating the company’s annual education summit and its newsletter for faculty.
“One of the primary goals that I have at Course Hero is to continue to foster community,” he says. “Which has been an interesting thing this week.”
Close colleagues defended Morris on social media this week.
“It’s crucial that educators and edtech companies talk to one another,” tweeted Jesse Stommel, co-founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. “These platforms should not be something that happens to students and teachers, but something they help develop. I have no doubt Sean is the right person to be leading those conversations @CourseHero and beyond.”
Here are highlights of our conversation with Sean Michael Morris, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: You said in one of your tweets this week that the fact that Course Hero reached out to you is “evidence of their commitment to changing and improving their platform.” But I’ve also seen others on Twitter concerned that it also could be a publicity stunt, or tokenism. That the company might say, ‘Hey, we hired this guy, so we’re OK,’ without necessarily changing any concrete aspects of their service. What do you say to that concern?
Sean Michael Morris: If I had allowed myself to be hired as a figurehead and as a bandage over problems, I would be really ashamed of myself. But I don’t think that’s what’s happened.
When they approached me, I was incredibly dubious. I thought, ‘Why is a tech company approaching me? They know my history. They know who I am. I don’t understand what’s going on here.’ And so I took the first interview. I took the first meeting with a lot of questions, and even throughout the entire interview process, every single time I was looking for red flags, I was looking for, ‘Is this a publicity stunt? Are they just wanting someone with credibility to come on board so that they suddenly have credibility by association?’
And I looked for that, and over and over and over again, I was convinced that that is not the case. I continue to be convinced of that when I’m in meetings with people, and we’re really talking about the problems that exist with the product and the things that we want to try to change. … I’m very interested in helping resolve those problems—not so much for the sake of the company as I am for the sake of students and teachers—because that’s where my loyalty lies constantly. I’m an educator first and foremost. And when I took the job, actually I told them, I said, ‘so I need to remain me when I take this job.’
There is still the fact that the service offers materials to help students study that in some cases are the answer keys to a test. And a lot of professors don’t see that as healthy study habits but either lazy or cheating. I know that users sign a statement saying they won’t cheat, but you can find examples of students talking amongst themselves saying that’s why they wanted to buy the product. Is there a way to square this? Even with someone with all the best intentions and background, can you take this site that was born of helping students cut corners and make it somehow not?
There’s a lot there … I think the company is evolving. I can speak to what I see when I talk to people there, and that is that their pedagogy is student-centered, and they’re really concerned with students being empowered in their education—that aligns with me. That absolutely aligns with me.
The larger problem of cheating: Of course, you know, this was an issue before the internet. … And I remember when the internet became much more available to everybody, educators saying, ‘The students will look at any answers they need. They’ll just be able to Google it and find out.’
And there was a huge fear around, around cheating. Then there’s always a fear of cheating. … Obviously there are problems with intellectual property being shared against people’s wishes [on Course Hero]. They have teams for this at Course Hero, they’re working on it. But we live in a world where user-generated content makes up most of the internet, and this is a constant battle.
Do you have a benchmark in your own mind where you plan to say, if things are not going well at some point, you’ll decide this doesn’t make sense and you’ll walk away from the job?
I had a feeling you were going to ask that. … I have thought about that. I have thought, OK, where’s my limit? At what point do I say, OK ‘Nope, we’re not gonna make it.’ And I honestly don’t know the answer yet. I’m very new to this job, and I’m still trying to get my feet wet. I’m trying to see what the possibilities are.
[But] if there comes a point when ‘Nope,’ then yes, I will walk away.
I took this job based on the fact that they wanted someone who has my ethos. And if it turns out that my ethos is not compatible with the direction of the company, well, then we would have to part ways.
This happened before. I was hired by another corporation sometime ago [Instructure], and worked for them for a short period of time. And while they were great—the people were great, and I really liked them. There was simply no place for my work there. And so I left, and I went from there to Middlebury College.
What I hear on a practical level from professors is that when professors see materials like exam answers on the site in violation of Course Hero policies, it is time-consuming to report those and get them taken down, and it takes labor for already time-strapped professors. Do you imagine changes to the process to make that less onerous for professors?
I can only speak sort of lightly on this because I don’t, I don’t know a lot of the details to be honest.
On the student side, we do everything that we can to discourage people from uploading things that shouldn’t be uploaded. And we’re trying to do more, and we keep thinking of new ways to communicate to students that they shouldn’t be doing this.
On the takedown side, I know that there’s a lot of talk about trying to streamline the process [while still following copyright law.]
So why were you interested in this gig? What’s the argument for you doing this?
I made an argument a long, long time ago … that in fact, one of the problems with edtech is that educators had no say in what was happening. And so when this invitation was offered to me, I thought, ‘Well, here’s an opportunity for an educator to be deeply involved in the production and in the creation of this—of the evolution of this product. And so that’s one of the reasons why I want to reach out to educators, I want them involved in this discussion.…
I’ve always done things in collaboration, in community. So I see this as a way in for not just me, but for a lot of educators to have some voice in what happens. That’s the opportunity. That’s the, that’s the green flag, if you will.
Have you been surprised by the pushback?
I predicted that would happen. I mean, as soon as this was going to happen, more people were going to start talking about Course Hero and the problems of Course Hero. I expected more people asking me these sorts of questions you’re asking me—like, ‘What do you see as the opportunity?’
But, yeah, the pushback has been exactly what I thought it would be. And I’m just hoping that over the long term, people will see that I did this for a reason.