But defenders of the Web sites — including some professors — say that teachers should not be recycling exams and that students who simply copy homework solutions hurt themselves at exam time. Many of the documents posted on the Web sites, like term papers and prior exams, have long been available to members of fraternities and sororities, which archive them (this has also been a source of complaints in the past).
David A. Sachs, an associate dean in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems at who is joining an advisory panel for Cramster, said in an interview that colleges need to rethink practices in light of the Internet age.
“As faculty, we need to be better educated about what the possibilities are, and the truth is you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Dr. Sachs said. “If Cramster and all these companies disappeared tomorrow, you could still do a search and find what you’re looking for in five minutes.”
David J. Kim, president and chief executive officer of Course Hero, which started early last year, said the premise of the company was to “bring the concept of study groups” online. “A student may know one or two people in their class,” he said, “but we wanted to provide an online community where you could connect with students from different colleges studying the same subject.”
Course Hero offers three million student-submitted items from 400,000 courses at more than 3,500 institutions, including lecture notes, study guides, presentations, lab results, research papers, essays and homework assignments. Users who submit such items can navigate the site free of charge; others pay a monthly fee. Mr. Kim declined to say how many users had registered beyond “hundreds of thousands” and said they included more than 1,000 professors using the site to refresh their teaching materials.
Mr. Kim also said that Course Hero, which warns users against cheating and plagiarism, had honored a handful of requests from professors to remove certain notes. “They felt that some material was released only to their students and they didn’t want it disseminated beyond that,” he said.
Cramster, which went online in 2003, has carved out a different niche, with many of its 500,000 registered users visiting the site specifically for solutions to math and science textbook problems. Solutions to odd-numbered problems are available free, but college students must pay $9.95 a month to see the even-numbered ones (solutions to even-numbered problems are not available for high school textbooks).
Students can also post queries to Cramster’s 3,000 “experts,” who are rated for quality (just like sellers on ) and earn “karma” points for rewards like laptops, iPods and gift cards. An expert, according to Aaron Hawkey, Cramster’s chief executive officer, could be a brilliant high school senior bound for , a professor or a retired engineer. In addition, the company has in-house staff members who moderate the question-and-answer board.
“There’s no doubt our site can be abused,” Mr. Hawkey acknowledged. “Let’s say I have a take-home test. We had one incident where someone posted a question on our site that was the same one on an exam.”
He said that Cramster had banned individual students from the site after receiving complaints from professors. “We know that some professors don’t think their students should see the step-by-step solutions,” he said. “But homework is worth such a small percentage of your grade. And Cramster can’t take the exam for you.”
Some professors counter that sites like Cramster have helped devalue homework. “For large undergraduate entry-level classes, it’s something you need to take into account and have a strategy for,” said Kyle Cranmer, an assistant professor of physics at . “One way of coping is not to weigh the homework as much, or you try and adjust the problems.”
William H. Kinney, an assistant professor of physics at the State University at Buffalo, Cramster’s biggest source of users in New York, said that for students who have genuinely wrestled with homework problems, the ability to identify where they got stuck — by taking a peek at Cramster’s step-by-step solutions, for example — can be a “great thing.” But he finds some of the items available on the site disturbing.
“Students have projects where they’re supposed to write a piece of code,” he said. “One thing the Cramster computer science message board has in large quantities is functional computer codes that you can cut and paste. In the computer science department here, that would be serious academic misconduct.”
Ultimately, though, Professor Kinney said the system is “self-policing.If the students just copy down answers to the homework, they will not do well on the exam,” he said. “The students who behave ethically will do well.”
Eric Jongsma, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at SUNY Buffalo, said he had found Cramster invaluable for extra practice and problem sets, but learned the hard way not to abuse it, after getting lazy last fall and turning to the site to “just plug in the numbers” for physics homework.
“When it came to the test, I tried to learn multiple chapters at the last minute,” he said. “I failed the test.”Continue reading the main story
In the years since, all sorts of homework help offerings have launched. But Slader, a year-old company that offers answers to questions found in popular math and science textbooks, is one of the most comprehensive. In November, Slader launched an iPhone app to make it even easier for students to see homework answers on the go.
It isn’t cheating, at least from the company’s perspective.
Slader founders Kyle Gerrity and Scott Kolb met in high school, where they became frustrated with homework assignments and shared solutions via fax machine. At first, they seeded Slader with homework answers from math majors at local universities. But these days, much of the site’s hundreds of answers to textbook questions comes from high school students themselves, who can rate and comment on answers from others. “The premise of the site is that it’s an open platform for high school and early college students to tap into an online study hall,” says Gerrity.
If a solution isn’t up to par, a user can request “gold”–Slader’s currency for buying access to answers–in exchange for completing a better one. Students can also ask others for help on unanswered questions, offering gold as a reward. All students start out with 500 gold, which can be redeemed for access to a certain number of answers. More gold can be purchased with a credit card, Paypal, and through iTunes (for students accessing the site through their iPhones). While most high schoolers don’t have credit cards, Kolb points out that they do often have Paypal accounts, and many have iTunes access.
With the new app, Slader’s homework-solving experience is nearly frictionless: sign up, browse the available answers or snap a picture of your own and upload it, buy more answers with an iTunes password or a thumbprint on the iPhone 5s. You could do the whole thing in front of a teacher and they probably wouldn’t notice.
Kolb says using Slader is more of a collaboration than a tool for cheating. “It’s what you do with older brothers, sisters, parents, a tutor. Slader is filling the niche of students struggling, who need help, but don’t have access to someone in their immediate family who can help them,” he says. “We want to challenge the notion that when you do homework, you should do it all yourself.”
It’s still hard to shake the feeling that a struggling math student might just use the service to squeak through class without actually learning anything. Nonetheless, a number of tutors and former teachers contribute to the site, and a former teacher of Kolb and Gerrity’s spends most of his day moderating the site and watching as content rolls in.
The humanities will be more difficult to tackle than math and science, since English homework answers are usually more subjective. Slader is still testing the waters, but visit the platform today you’ll find a smattering of English and history books, including novels like Animal Farm and The Bell Jar.