Why you should care
Because this is what the library of the future will look like.
Andrew Grauer looks more like a chipper Boy Scout than a startup stud. His giddy grin never lets up, and his gangly frame hardly sits still in his chair. Beaming, he hands me the “homework” I never assigned him — a copy of his prepared responses, neatly typed and freshly printed. “I emailed them to you too,” he says.
That’s what happens when you give a teacher’s pet the reins of a mighty ed tech startup. For 29-year-old Grauer, it pays to be over-prepared. The son of a former Columbia and MIT professor, Grauer built an online education company called Course Hero that’s been profitable, he says, from Day One, and dutily follows the mantra of Silicon Valley: Digitize everything that moves. In this case, it’s the infamous file cabinets of Greek life, filled to the brim with the frayed exams and essays of frat boys and sorority sisters from years past. Now, he declares, let’s upgrade them to an online, Wikipedia-like “bank” of 7 million crowdsourced class notes, old tests and homework problems from more than 8,900 schools across 60 countries. Everything to “maximize your education” is at your fingertips, Grauer says grandly, his arms gesturing wide. “We want to break down the four walls of the classroom.”
It looks like those four walls are starting to crumble. In nine years, the company has caught the attention of major league investors such as YouTube’s Steve Chen and StubHub’s Jeff Fluhr and raise nearly $18 million in funding. It’s also helped Grauer land on Forbes’ and Inc. magazine’s 30 Under 30 lists, as well as BusinessWeek’s list of America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs. Course Hero has created a “great opportunity for students to build and publish their work” and “actually participate in the learning culture,” says Beth Holland, a Google education trainer at EdTechTeacher.
The company was started within the walls that Grauer wants to now break down: his college dorm room at Cornell, where he majored in Spanish. He’d missed a day of class (don’t worry, he wasn’t playing hooky; he tore a ligament) and was too timid to ask for anyone’s notes. Now, nine years later, Course Hero stops just short of supplying full-on cheat sheets to students, says Grauer, and instead aspires to be the “living and breathing library of the future” — open 24/7, buzzing with 10 million high school students, college pupils and teachers who either shell out $39.95 a month or upload their own study materials in exchange for access to the site’s reservoir of learning materials and its brigade of on-demand online tutors.
The sunny windows at Course Hero’s Redwood City, California, headquarters overlook the cool blue bay. Inside, Grauer shows me his fancy new tech, awaiting my reaction eagerly. Every week, students from Germany to Georgia beam into the office via five roaming telepresence robots, which look like iPads on coat-hanger Segways. Grauer allows them to zip and zoom around the office in order to get a behind-the-scenes look at the team behind Course Hero.
In some way, the futuristic classroom seems inevitable: MOOCs have enrolled 35 million students to date, according to Class Central. In the first half of 2015 alone, private investors bankrolled $2.5 billion into ed tech companies and eclipsed the record high of $2.42 billion invested in all of 2014, according to market research firm Ambient Insight. But Course Hero might also be read as proof of just how much technology is serving old-style classrooms, rather than uprooting their historied foundations; after all, the “MOOC revolution” has turned out to be more about career advancement and supplemental education than a replacement for a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, Course Hero is building on higher ed’s traditional foundations.
And it might help students continue a less beloved tradition: cheating. With free reign to upload and share course materials, plagiarism has never been easier. And schools are faced with the challenge of constantly rewriting exams, so students can’t memorize the answers from the past versions posted online. Some go as far as issuing cease-and-desist letters to companies that allow students to upload and sell their notes. “The Internet opens up an amazing amount of information to someone who wants it, but it presents a lot of temptations to someone who wants a shortcut,” says computer science professor Greg Page at Boston University Metropolitan College. Meanwhile, Course Hero absolves itself of any liability through an honor code that bounds “users to act with academic integrity” — scout’s honor. Even though the company uses an auto-filter to sift through uploaded materials, some things still slip through the cracks. So, until someone lodges a complaint, Course Hero does not take down copyrighted material in most cases per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It’s the the Silicon Valley way: act first, ask for forgiveness later. That way, Grauer avoids getting entangled in outdated rules that have yet to catch up with the times. Of course, Course Hero “takes academic integrity and copyright infringement very seriously,” adds Grauer.
At Course Hero, an overly eager pupil beams into the office with her laptop and asks to Snapchat it with her phone. It doesn’t matter if they’re typing away at a sleek tablet or swooping into campus on a self-driving school bus, kids will always be kids.