Emily Sawtell is Founder of GradeGuru and a member of the Higher Education Management Group. GradeGuru is a platform for college/university students to share course notes via the web and to be paid for their efforts.

KH: As I suggested in a previous post, your business model requires that much of the curriculum being taught at universities be common. Otherwise, the number of other students that can use the uploaded notes is highly limited. Is this an accurate assumption?


Yes and no. A significant part of the value-proposition for GradeGuru is that students can find notes for their specific course at their specific school. While there might be a lot of similarity, for example, in introductory courses across disciplines at different schools, it is definitely the case that every school has its own approach to the curriculum, however subtle or dramatic those nuances and differences might be. What is critical to students is that they are studying the right materials, with the right perspective and emphasis for their particular school.

We expect students to come to GradeGuru and use predominantly notes created by students who have taken their specific course at their school before. There are some exceptions to this general rule: we are finding overseas students are already using US school notes to supplement their courses – for example, we are seeing traffic from Indian engineering students already. The other common factor across schools for a specific subject can often be the textbook. Particularly for introductory level courses, two different schools using the same textbook are likely to have some commonality in their curriculum, so we have made it possible for students to search for notes across schools by textbook. With the book as the common denominator, students can have some confidence of their relevance of a given set of notes for ideas and inspiration. Of course students searching by topic for ideas for more subjective subjects such as history or literature may actually benefit from getting a fresh and different perspective from students at another school who are being taught with a slightly different emphasis.
With regard ot your underlying assumption – that if there is not a common curriculum, then our content cannot be relevant enough for all students… The basic answer is, all notes in a discipline are not relevant for all students, but that’s why GradeGuru is a useful supplement to the wealth of educational content already out there – GradeGuru is a way for students to access the basic concepts and learning objectives in a way that is school/class specific. What that implies of course is that we need a depth and breadth of notes for every single subject at every single school for this site to work. Yes, that is also true. Over time, that is what we hope to achieve. We are focused on building depth and breadth at a core group of schools first to reach critical mass at those schools first and then grow from there. In some ways, it is no different to the telephone only being useful if other people have one, or FaceBook only being compelling if all of your friends have an account too. The fact that bringing other people into the site makes it more useful for the existing members is one element we hope will drive growth in membership and the base of notes.

KH: In a recent news story, an academic suggested that note-sharing is ethically questionable. Another wondered if it violated intellectual property standards. How does GradeGuru address these potential problems?

These are critical questions. Let me address each one in turn:
1) In terms of the ethics of the site and collaboration in general, we absolutely believe that students sharing notes, learning from each others’ study methods, comparing interpretations of concepts and giving each other feedback on their work is and ethical and a very constructive way to engage students with the course concepts and help them build confidence in their course work. Moreover, of course, this is something that is happening already in localised ways. The idea for GradeGuru grew out of ethnographic research we performed looking at how students study and why they use certain tools and methods. We had students keeping journals about their day-to-day activities at school, the resources they were using and their attitudes towards class; others video-taped themselves “thinking aloud” during study periods. One of the key take-always from this research was just how much students rely on their peers outside the classroom. We very commonly found students studying together in groups, sharing ideas and study materials. Some students, particularly those in their earlier years of college, turned to their peers because of a lack of confidence in their own methods and understanding, driven by a lack of clarity, they felt, about what was expected of them. They knew they needed to progress to more sophisticated study habits than they were using in high-school, but were unclear what that meant and so turned to their peers to see how others were tackling the topic. Students want to know they are on the right path and they turn to their peers for that confidence. In other cases, students who were struggling with a topic turned to classmates with a better grasp of the concepts. In many ways, GradeGuru is nothing new. GradeGuru is just taking the age-old study group concept and putting it online so all students can access the collective wisdom of the top students in the class and learn from their methods. Rather than asking the guy down the hall who may or may not be any more the wiser than you, you can tap into notes from a “guru”. And GradeGuru is not alone in doing this of course. In a recent article in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the reporter interviewed several professors on this issue. One particular law professor talked about how his faculty have been sharing the best students’ notes for years (see: The Daily Pennsylvanian)

We are proactively working to ensure our resources is used ethically and as intended. On the question of whether students might copy or plagiarise materials from our site, we have partnered with TurnItIn, the leading plagiarism prevention provider and the same tool academic institutions are using (Keith I am attaching our press release about this just FYI). Of course students could plagiarise from many sources (books, journals, the internet at large), so the importance of citing sources and original work is something academic institutions work hard to educate students about. GradeGuru is equally working to ensure it cannot be plagiarised by partnering with the leading anti-plagiarism tool. All GradeGuru content is added to the TurnItIn database. As a result, if students submit materials from GradeGuru as their own for a course that used TurnItIn, that materials will be flagged as unoriginal. Moreover, our site is marked as being “Protected by TurnItIn”. What this does is a) send a very strong signal to students about how GradeGuru should be used (our research shows most students are aware of what TurnItIn is and what the implications of plagiarism for their academic careers), and b) actually means GradeGuru is working with the same tools as institutions to enforce academic ethics. The bottom line is, don’t plagiarise from GradeGuru because you will get caught.

In terms of the other question I have been asked – whether GradeGuru could result in students doing less work or not going to class – there are a few things we need to keep in mind here: Firstly, that GradeGuru actually gives students an incentive to work even harder. We get email after email from our student contributors telling us GradeGuru has pushed them to organise their notes better, and be more reflective and thoughtful about how they study and put together their study materials (you can refer to our blog for student quotes about this), because they know other students are going to be looking at them. We are very proud GradeGuru is having that impact. Secondly, as we know, there are lots of students out there who are struggling to get through their courses and who benefit enormously from getting a sense for how successful students study, what their materials look like and the amount of effort and commitment it takes to do well in college. We get lots of emails about that too. Thirdly, the simple fact is that different students process information differently. Seeing concepts presented in a different format can help student comprehension (some students use mind-maps or graphical representations of concepts, other contributors have written notes tagged to highlight important concepts, etc…). Finally, college level courses are such that just getting someone else’s notes and memorizing them is not going to get you through the course. College courses require that students understand and can interpret and apply the concepts. Students can look at the notes on GradeGuru as a starting points, but they will still need to work through them and do their practice problems, etc… just  as they have always done.

It is important that these questions get asked and we have put in place the right measures to tackle them. I would direct you again to the Daily Pennsylvania article which points out that if students use the site as intended (that is, only share their own materials and use it for ideas and inspiration as our tools enforce), then academics who understand the concept agree that legally and ethically, GradeGuru is a good thing. (See related news report.)

2) In terms of copyright, we absolutely do not allow students to share anything that is not their own work, in their own words. That is made very clear in our terms and conditions, but moreover, we have a warning about this front and centre on the notes upload page. Our site moderators help us ensure that anything that is university property, such as lecture notes, past exam papers, etc, is not shared on GradeGuru.

KH: Trust is a major factor when deciding to share notes. When I borrowed notes in college (often), I didn’t ask ‘just anyone”: I selected someone I knew to be a good student (invariably a woman). How can GradeGuru facilitate trust amongst its users?

Keith, this is a fabulous question. This gets to the heart of what is important on our site. Trust and reputation is critical. Students are constantly rating each others’ notes and giving each other feedback on GradeGuru. The peer-reviews then drive a students’ “status” on the site. Of course this is a typical web 2.0 way of building trust – eBay very much relies on trust and it uses member ratings to build it. We are doing the same sort of thing. Our ratings and recognition system means that those “good students” get highlighted on the site as “gurus” – we acknowledge both overall gurus and gurus specific to each discipline. We have just released the ability for our members search by contributor name for exactly this reason – we think students will find a “guru” whose learning style works for them and whom they trust, and want to follow all of that guru’s notes and feedback on concepts throughout their whole degree. We are also toying with the idea of allowing students to share their notes with just a sub-set of students – their “study group” – so they can get a sense for and start to trust the site concept, which we hope will then lead to them then sharing more broadly over time. This idea is still being concept tested with students.

KH: What led you to this current role with Grade Guru?

GradeGuru is a McGraw-Hill start-up. I joined McGraw-Hill out of business school as part of their leadership development program. I had long wanted to get into education in some capacity (I am one of those people who believe education is the answer to so many of our macro-issues today). My background is in business and entrepreneurship (GradeGuru is the second business I have started), but I wanted to move into a role where I could apply that experience in the education space. Most of my post-graduate academic studies focused on innovation and how business innovation concepts could be applied to education. McGraw-Hill Education, which is committed to innovation and leveraging the power of technology to help all students learn, offered me a place to do that. The first role I took on at McGraw-Hill was the ethnographic research to deeply investigate students’ study habits and use of technology, and that led to my starting and running GradeGuru and my current role of Director of New Business Ventures.

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