In the blue corner: Pearson, a shrunken ex-conglomerate, former owner of the Financial Times, a textbook publisher hated by many teachers, now led by former Walt Disney executive Andy Bird.
In the red corner: Chegg, a glossy “edtech” upstart, based in Silicon Valley, led by well-connected former Yahoo executive Dan Rosensweig.
Chegg started off as a textbook rental service before moving to online subscriptions, similar to Netflix’s pivot from DVDs to streaming. And like Netflix, investors became excited by the fast growth and recurrent revenues. By contrast, Pearson, addicted to profits from its legacy textbook publishing business, has been slow to digitise. Last year, the teenage Chegg surpassed the market value of 177-year-old Pearson.
This month the British old-timer sued its Californian rival. Pearson’s legal claim is that Chegg is violating copyright by selling answers to questions contained in the publisher’s textbooks.
Companies that struggle to innovate often resort to the courts to hobble sprightlier challengers. But whatever its merits, the Pearson lawsuit does highlight one awkward fact about Chegg: it is helping students cheat.
Armed with Chegg’s answers to standard questions in heavyweight Pearson tomes, students can pass homework assignments without the need for study. Rather than fully absorbing their anatomy courses, medical students just need to master their keyboards’ CTRL-C and CTRL-V functions.
Chegg notes that most of its answers show their workings to help students understand them, not merely repeat them. It also argues this method of learning is especially helpful to students from poorer backgrounds, who might be juggling jobs and childcare and lack access to tutors.
But it was the pandemic that provided a catalyst to Chegg’s business, which now boasts 6.6m subscribers mostly paying $14.95 a month, and new opportunities for cheats. In addition to its bank of answers to textbook questions, Chegg allows students to submit original questions and have them answered by an expert “in as little as 30 minutes”.
In a paper published in February, Thomas Lancaster, senior teaching fellow in computing at Imperial College London, found the number of questions submitted to Chegg in five subjects had surged 196 per cent between April and August 2019 and the same period a year later, coinciding with the pandemic-forced shift online. He attributes the rise to use in exams that are taking place remotely.
Chegg disputes this and notes that it, along with many other digital businesses, simply enjoyed a boost as activity shifted online. It also says it works with educational institutions to investigate potential misconduct.
To impede cheating, the group has introduced a service called “Honor Shield”, which allows universities to provide exam questions to Chegg. The company will then block answers to these particular questions. Some academics, however, say they are unwilling to provide confidential test material to a company that traffics in answers.
Another apparent anti-cheating tool provided by Chegg is double-edged. The company allows students to upload their essays for “plagiarism detection”. The purported goal is to prevent inadvertent cheating.
However, as Lancaster points out: “If a student has access to this technology then they can use it to try to avoid being detected themselves [by making] what they hand in superficially different.”
Where do we go from here? There is likely to be a temporary improvement this year when more exams are supervised in person. Chegg is also morphing again: adding more of its own educational material and making it less reliant on students cheating.
But most of the tools from Chegg and its rivals will continue to be used. This means a sad technological arms race between students and colleges, with a boom in new services offering to monitor exam participants via webcam and artificial intelligence solutions to root out plagiarism.
Most misconduct will nevertheless go undetected. As Lancaster says: “If a student cheats well and they choose somebody who knows what they’re doing and they get good answers back, nothing looks amiss.”
Letter in response to this article:
Commercial goals have undermined ‘liberal’ higher education / From Roger Brown, Emeritus Professor and Former, Vice-Chancellor, Solent University, Southampton, UK