• Cy Gilman

“Students First”

Updated: May 18

Under Chegg’s corporate strategy, student insecurity is a marketable good.

By Cy Gilman


On the morning of December 26, 2020, students in Professor William Zajc’s Quantum Mechanics I class received a notification from their instructor. It read:


While the exam was still open, it was brought to my attention that two problems from the exam were posted to Chegg.com. Further investigation found that basically the entire exam had been posted to Chegg. There is no ambiguity here, the individual doing this posted literal copies of the exam problems, indicative of a spectacularly crass disregard not only for me but for all of you struggling to solve these problems within the allowed ground rules.


Learning this certainly cast a pall of my own holiday celebration, and I did not want to burden all of you with this last week. I have initiated an investigation into this very serious matter, and have reasonable expectations of success.


Students had “posted” the examination to Chegg.com’s “Expert Q&A section, where users with paid accounts can upload questions for Chegg employees to answer. In essence, a student “posting” the test to the site was paying someone else to take the test for them.


This was not the only incident in which students used this feature in violation of Columbia’s academic integrity policy. Earlier that semester, students in Fundamentals of Computer Systems with Professor Martha Kim had uploaded several “practice sheet problems” (portions of graded assignments) to the site—in Professor Kim’s words, “soliciting solutions.” This spring, Professor Ansaf Salleb-Aouissi changed the grading structure for Discrete Mathematics partway through the semester, weighing problem sets less heavily after questions from the first two were found on Chegg.


Higher-profile cases of academic integrity violations at Columbia involving Chegg have spiked during our period of online learning, exposing serious vulnerabilities in remote grading. But Chegg had earned a reputation long before March of last year. Among grateful students and embittered professors, the company has come to embody soft-core cheating: step-by-step solutions to textbook problems for homework assignments unlikely to be closely scrutinized. In student discourse, on Twitter, over texts, in dorm-room conversations, the company’s name has undergone syntactical metamorphosis from proper noun to verb: To “Chegg it” is to look up the answers to a homework assignment, usually in resignation to intellectual defeat.


In other corners of the internet, however, students whisper about Chegg in very different tones. As rumors about the company’s cooperation with academic dishonesty investigations fly, panicked messages size up any immediate threat. Many even convey a sense of betrayal. And such fear is not unfounded: Chegg’s company policies indicate a readiness to aid academic investigations, allowing professors to request information about suspect posts through a page on their website, so long as an official investigation has been opened.


The professors I spoke to, including Professor Zajc, indicated that Chegg was completely cooperative throughout the investigative process. According to a class announcement sent by Professor Lucia Moura of the University of Ottawa after a mass cheating case, Chegg provides investigators with a spreadsheet that includes account information for “askers” and “viewers,” “with date of access and questions asked and paged viewed.” She continues, “even though fake names and fake universities have been used in some of these chegg accounts, users may leave identifiable digital trace. There [are] already identifiable students in my group in that list.”


A pattern emerges: Students use Chegg to cheat; professors use Chegg to catch them. Chegg enables students’ misbehavior; Chegg cooperates with academia’s punitive instruments of authority. Professors and students alike are hurt when Chegg compromises the integrity of their class; students are hurt when academic dishonesty punishments are doled out. All the while, Chegg profits.


According to internal company data, Chegg had 6.6 million subscribers to its set of services in 2020, a 67% increase from the year before. Each pay approximately $15 per month. In 2020, Chegg Study content was viewed 1.388 billion times, with an average of 19 million unique visitors to the site each month. As of this writing, the company’s market cap stands at $12.41 billion.


As one would expect, the company explains its success differently than a student or professor might. To those within Chegg, the company’s success validates its digital business model, and serves as evidence that a struggling student population is in desperate need of the help it provides. CEO Dan Rosenzweig articulated this position in an earnings call in March 2020: “The numbers say it best. And what they reflect is that students have an even greater need for high-quality, low-cost, personalized and adaptive online education to help them learn and master their curriculum.” Internal materials demonstrate a keen awareness of the financial problems, changing demographics, and academic struggles of students today, and in turn frame their services as something of a salve.


Also unsurprisingly, Chegg officials tend to be dismissive of the suggestion that their company enables cheating. Statements consistently point to the company’s cooperation with investigations as evidence that they take matters of academic misconduct seriously. In a recent interview in the New York Times, Rosenzweig claimed that cases of misconduct on Chegg are merely the result of age-old problems translated into a new medium: “It’s always been a problem for colleges. Let’s face it: Students have always found a way, whether it’s in fraternities, or whether they go to Google.”


Perhaps surprisingly, Columbia’s Student Conduct and Community Standards (SCCS) echoes this view, writing that “challenges with academic integrity are unfortunately always present in higher education settings; they have merely evolved in a virtual learning environment.” As reported by SCCS, although a greater proportion of this year’s academic misconduct reports mention Chegg or similar services, “reporting data has remained largely unchanged year over year”—indicating that fears of a Chegg-driven cheating spike since remote learning took near-ubiquitous hold may be somewhat overblown. Perhaps such a spike has taken place, but no concrete evidence exists besides hearsay and Twitter gossip. To wonder only about whether Chegg enables cheating is to ask an unanswerable question.


Illustration by Samia Menon

The discourse surrounding Chegg coming from both professors and students fails to scrutinize the company beyond its alleged relationship to academic dishonesty policies. Teachers fret about whether it can enable cheating, ignoring any broader impact on how students learn; students only become concerned about Chegg’s possession of their personal information when they suspect that their teachers may gain access to it. This fixation misses the forest for the trees, raising concerns that Chegg can easily dismiss while leaving larger, more pressing questions unasked: What exactly is Chegg, and how does it generate profit? How did it attract six million paying subscribers? What kind of impact is it actually making on how students learn? And what are its plans for the future?


···


Chegg was founded in 2007 as an online hub for textbook rentals, but the scope of their business model quickly widened. After Rosensweig was hired as CEO in 2010, the company began a series of mergers with other educational technology start-ups—including CourseRank, Zinch, and Cramster—and by 2013, they began to identify as a “leading student-first connected learning platform.” In 2014, Chegg began shutting down their warehouses in a transition to fully digital operations. That year, digital revenue—coming from online features like Expert Q&A and Step-by-Step Textbook Solutions—accounted for 32% of the company’s total. In 2021, this figure has exploded to 85%.


As the company shifted its revenue model, it looked to Wall Street to support its expansion, going public in 2013. Its stock price stayed flat at about $10 per share for four years, before steadily rising in 2017 alongside targeted efforts to court investors: conferences with Morgan Stanley and Raymond James, e-Learning summits, a 2016 “Analyst Day.” Investors seem to have been convinced—Chegg’s share price sextupled between 2017 and 2019, even before the worldwide transition to online learning skyrocketed it to an astonishing $113 per share at its peak.


In these contexts, Chegg presents itself not as a covert cheating service or a textbook rental company, but as a corporation with monopolistic ambitions. In presentation materials, the company compares itself to Netflix, Facebook, and Spotify, expressing an aim for similar dominance over the $1.3 trillion education industry.


Source: Chegg Analyst Day slides deck, p. 31

In communicating with investors, Chegg represents their plan for attracting and maintaining subscribers with a tacky visual called the “Student Graph”: at first glance, an example of meaningless corporate symbology, but upon further inspection, something much more worrying. The Graph shows a sample student at the center of a latticed web of orange and green dots—the former representing Chegg products, the latter representing the pieces of personal data that the company has at its disposal. These points connect to and reinforce one another, leaving the student stuck in the company’s grasp. Translated into real terms, the image depicts an interconnected system of targeted advertising and data collection optimized to lure students in and rotate them between different features of the system.

The targeting begins early: According to Chegg’s aforementioned “Analyst Day” presentation, in 2016, 64% of high schoolers in the US reported having used EasyBib—a free citation generator owned by Chegg—in middle school or earlier. From an anonymous EasyBib citation, the company receives a student’s IP address, collects cookies, and learns which books the student is citing, from which they can deduce the subjects they’re studying, the textbooks they may need to buy, their grade level, and their location. With some knowledge of which schools assign which books and the student’s location, the company can deduce where the student goes to school. Chegg can then begin bombarding the student with narrowly focused advertisements for its services: for ordering the textbooks they cited, step-by-step answers for that textbook, help in the relevant subject, and more.

In designing the advertisements themselves, Chegg shows a keenness to take advantage of students’ insecurities and psychological weak points. One slide in a 2016 presentation to investors identifies “pervasive” student “pain points” such as academic performance, financial concerns, and relationship issues; another divides students into “achievers” and “strugglers” based on their reasons for seeking help. Quite evidently, the company understands students’ self-consciousness about which of those two categories they fall into. I remember with horror and clarity a Chegg advertisement that played between Spotify tracks during my junior year of high school, which boldly proclaimed something along the lines of, “You used to be the smart kid. The one who aced every test without trying.” Likely aware that I, its target, was at an age in which school had severely ramped up in difficulty, the ad posited Chegg as a route to recovering one’s status as “the smart kid.”


Advertising is not the only way into the system: Chegg stresses its advanced SEO, short for Search Engine Optimization, in its presentations. Now, when a student types a textbook question, or any homework question resembling one of Chegg’s solved problems, into Google—an intuitive step for a desperate student to take—Chegg’s solution is likely to be the first result to appear. According to the company’s own traffic data, as of 2016, 62% of its website traffic came from SEO.


It seems that Chegg’s efforts at self-promotion have worked spectacularly. In 2019, 87% of surveyed students listed Chegg, completely unprompted, as a company that provides students with “support with their studies and their lives around school.” In other words, Chegg was named more frequently than Amazon (that other bookseller start-up), Quizlet, Khan Academy, or even Google.


Targeted advertising only accelerates once students begin using the site. Collecting information such as reading pace on e-textbooks, answers viewed or searched, and usage during specific times of day and of the semester, Chegg can anticipate when and how students might want help next; they can then dispatch text and email notifications, or cross-sell other Chegg services. As the company seeks to best retain its customers, the planning behind its mergers and expansions becomes clear. The company has vertically integrated its ensemble of services, so any time a student faces an academic challenge, a corresponding Chegg feature materializes: citing sources, solving math problems, writing essays, searching for colleges, preparing for standardized tests, buying textbooks, selecting a major, finding internships. By cycling its customers from service to service, Chegg traps students inside its network. Or, as it describes its expansion model: “Acquisition; Engagement; Retention; Attach.” The company’s business model belies any claim that Chegg’s recent success is an indication of the quality of its product; rather, it is a marketing triumph. The company has finagled the mechanics of the internet so that when students need help, Chegg’s name appears first—in search results and in students’ minds.


···


Absent in this business model is any input from educators or any reference to pedagogy. This pattern corresponds to the makeup of the company’s leaders: Of the nine members of the company’s Board of Directors and the eight of its upper management, only one has a background as an educator, and another in educational publishing. (We might add one more if we decide to count Guitar Hero, Rosenzweig’s previous gig, as a music education company.)


Chegg’s repeated insistence that they are a “Student First” company reads very differently in this light. As the company cites promising statistics about students’ response to the site—how many would recommend it to friends, how many think it helps them improve their grades or better understand their school work—it entirely ignores any response from educators to these same questions. It becomes clear that “Student First” does not signal the company’s ethical priorities but coldly expresses its business model, one that centers the student as the primary site of profit. In operating behind the backs of real educators, Chegg bypasses the built-in middlemen, gatekeepers, and quality controls of the academic system.


In this framework, Chegg users cease to be students who may learn the material well or poorly and become sources of revenue, who may be more or less satisfied with the service they receive. For Chegg, it does not matter so much whether a student is learning, as that they believe they are learning—enough to continue to pay for their subscription. The assumption among students that their relationship to their teachers is an inimical one compounds this effect by turning Chegg’s neglect of educators into a subversive virtue, and teachers’ concerns about Chegg’s services into legalistic moralizing.


The result is that millions of students happily depend on a set of learning tools that have not been extensively vetted or approved by educational professionals. Beyond questions of academic misconduct, there is reason to question their pedagogical value—particularly that of Chegg’s most heavily promoted feature, completed step-by-step solutions to any given problem.


According to Nick Wasserman, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Teachers College, this type of resource can be useful in the right circumstances: “Certainly there is value in students trying to solve problems on their own and trying to follow someone else’s solution of problems. I’m perfectly fine if students at some point look at sample solutions to problems in my own courses.” Yet Wasserman also noted the pedagogical dangers inherent in the site’s unregulated use. “It says, with a quick button, you can know the first step and maybe that gets you started,” he said, noting that reasoning through this first step is itself a crucial element of mathematical practice.


Professor Zajc, whose Quantum Physics final was at the center of the December incident, expressed a similarly hesitant yet open-minded attitude towards Chegg’s teaching potential for individual students. To make use of these tools and still truly learn the physics material, “the student would first need to make a concerted effort to solve the problem unaided, and then to resort to Chegg only [once] some significant effort has been expended trying to solve the problem, and then carefully reviewing what false assumptions or missing insights prevented them from solving the problem.” However, Zajc cast doubt on whether the majority of students would use these resources in this way, noting that “the temptation will always be there to avoid this hard work in the first place.”


Indeed, several students with whom I spoke off the record said they used Chegg to study in precisely the manner Zajc had hoped and found it helpful. The concern, however, is that such an approach requires the student to play a fundamentally active role in their own learning. Considering the extent to which Chegg’s business model depends on sticking itself immediately in front of students’ faces, it’s doubtful that students encountering Chegg truly have agency in their relationship with the company. When aggressive advertising campaigns designed to suck students into dependency on the software play on powerful underlying urges to get the work done as quickly and easily as possible, the cards are certainly stacked against the substantive uses that Wasserman and Zajc propose.


In some cases, the passive attitude Chegg inspires—and even encourages—in using the platform may lead students to accept or attempt to learn flawed material found on the site. One of the teaching assistants for Professor Kim’s Fundamentals of Computer Systems class told me that, upon learning that problems from class assignments had been uploaded to the site, they looked at the answers supplied by Chegg “experts.” In some cases, students’ dishonesty was not the most glaring issue: “My biggest nitpick was that sometimes it was just straight-up wrong. The answer [was] wrong, work shown was wrong. It’s bad if the answer is wrong, but it’s kind of like reverse learning if it’s leading the student to think that the wrong solution and work is the correct way of doing it.”


Even when the responses are correct, there is little indication that Chegg has designed its website to encourage students to use its ensemble of study tools in the active and engaged manner that the professors described. Upon logging in, widgets in the center of Chegg’s home screen read “Get Textbook Solutions” and “Stuck on a Homework Problem? / Over 10 million answered questions / Solved by Chegg subject experts / Get solution 24/7.” (The Honor Code, by contrast, can be accessed through a small-print link at the bottom of the screen.) Promotional material on the Chegg Study tab cites a tweet reading “Shoutout to Chegg Study for allowing me to knockout [sic] my homework in 30 min.” As a whole, the language on Chegg’s website emphasizes the speed and convenience of using its products, undermining the labored process necessary to make those features valuable.


In particular, if cases of cheating on exams are a misuse of Chegg’s services, as the company claims, one would expect that it would construct its website and tools to discourage and prevent such misuse. Yet, while the company emphasized in an emailed statement their commitment to combating academic misconduct in ways that are “preventative and not punitive,” its followthrough on this admirable sentiment seems far from thorough.


Take, for example, Chegg Honor Shield, a feature rolled out in full this April. Meant to safeguard remote testing, the feature allows professors to upload their test questions, so Chegg can preemptively block any public response to those questions during the testing window. Though superficially an effective preventative measure, as Professor Zajc pointed out, the feature foists responsibility for prevention onto the professors, expecting them “to spend their unreimbursed time helping a for-profit enterprise prevent students from cheating.” Furthermore, the company was recently forced to issue a clarification on their Terms of Use for the service, amid fears that the company would be able to recycle test questions as study materials after the testing window. And the maximum testing window currently permitted by the service is six hours, shorter than many current asynchronous tests.


Most significantly, Honor Shield can only detect and block problems that match known test questions verbatim. In another article, Chegg touts its safeguards against the “misuse” of their resources, including “software that looks for potential ‘tells’ such as the words ‘quiz’ or ‘exam’ in a submission.” Forgive me if I believe my peers to be capable of bypassing these restrictions without half a thought.


Worryingly, there is some evidence that by permanently placing themselves at students’ fingertips, Chegg may be pushing aside more substantive resources, including those offered by students’ home institutions. In her aforementioned online announcement, Professor Moura of the University of Ottawa offers up her office hours as a possible resource for asking questions, noting that her office hours “statistically seems to have gotten less enquiries than Chegg.” For all the company’s claims that it provides help otherwise unavailable to students, it becomes more and more difficult not to see its services as an easy way out of any kind of engagement with the resources that already exist.


···


As much as Chegg’s rise to ubiquity has come as the result of heavy self-promotion and corporate strategy, it has also done so by responding attentively, if superficially, to shifts and flaws in existing academic infrastructure—in particular, students’ dissatisfaction with academic institutions and demand for external help. And if the company’s current reputation is built on anticipating and manipulating the frustrations and struggles of students, its plans for the future attempt to do the same with academic institutions.


According to company leadership, higher education institutions are on the cusp of a momentous and brutal transition—only accelerated by the pandemic’s sudden shift to remote learning. Rosenzweig told Fortune magazine that “25% of colleges could go out of business” from the financial fallout of the pandemic, and declared in a CNBC interview a long-standing belief that “online learning is the wave of the future.” Internal Chegg documents warn of student debt spiraling out of control, graduates struggling to enter the job market, schools flailing in their forced attempts to go remote. One would not necessarily expect a corporation built with Silicon Valley business practices and Wall Street financing to provide the solution to these problems; nevertheless, Chegg’s recent activity has attempted to use its various corporate facets—as an employer in a lucrative industry, an advertiser and source of funding, a hub for online student activity—as stop-gap aid, which they can use as leverage to reshape the educational landscape in their favor.


When making deals with institutions, as with students, Chegg tends to make the first move. For instance, the company recently reached out to professors (including me, listed falsely in their records as “Professor Gilman”) in order to advertise the Honor Shield feature. Of course, the relevance of such a tool rests on the expectation that Chegg will be a likely forum for academic misconduct—and so the company is weaponizing its reputation for educational contraband to incentivize engagement from professors, and, ironically, change that reputation in the process.


A controversial 2019 partnership between Chegg and the Purdue Online Writing Lab similarly resulted from the tech company’s initiative. As negotiated in the deal, the OWL would help develop Chegg’s writing content, attaching a credible academic name to the company’s products; in return, Chegg would pay for advertisements on the OWL’s website—an odd concession, given that it seems to benefit Chegg as much as it does the OWL. By presenting the OWL with an opportunity for monetization, Chegg used the capital at its disposal to provide a short-term salve for Purdue’s financial concerns. In the long run, however, the deal added to Chegg’s institutional credibility even as it detracted from the OWL’s—whose prestige, according to some faculty members, may have been weakened.


Another component of the OWL agreement was the opportunity for Purdue students to apply for internships at Chegg (which, evidently, is quite a pleasant place to work). This agreement corresponds to a broader willingness on the part of the company to use its status as an employer as leverage over academic institutions. For example, in his recent New York Times interview, Rosenzweig, playing the benevolent boss, expressed the admirable goal of paying off his employee’s student debt in its entirety—yet simultaneously framed this policy as a power play over their academic creditors: “If corporations agreed to pay off some or all of this debt, I believe colleges would expand their curriculum to be more aligned with what companies in their local areas need as graduates. It would also tie the community and the companies and the institutions and the students all together to try to get a better education at a lower cost and lower debt in our communities.” Such an academic realignment plays into Chegg’s hands in more ways than one. Not only does it encourage schools to train its future employees and provide the company with a source of skilled laborers, but it also encourages schools to funnel students into the STEM-B (STEM plus business) classes to which Chegg dedicates the majority of its resources.


Much of the public-facing language surrounding Chegg’s interaction with academic institutions frames both parties as equal collaborators: The director of the OWL, for instance, described Chegg as “committed to partnering with faculty and administration.” Similarly, a Chegg spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement about academic integrity: “We are committed to working with faculty on this important topic, including how assessments can be improved to support remote learning, [and] address the enormous stress students face.” Ordinarily, it would be somewhat absurd for a company as short on educators as Chegg to offer to “partner” and “work with” faculty and universities on problems like designing tests or reducing stress. Yet the use of this language indicates the company’s desire to assume precisely this kind of institutional legitimacy.


···


The precise contours of Chegg’s trajectory in the coming years are not quite clear. The company may continue to embed itself in the academic landscape, profiting off of “partnerships” with institutions that increasingly begin to move online. Or its future may lie with Thinkify, its nascent coding bootcamp—described by Rosenzweig as an alternative to community colleges (many of which, he anticipates, will close), the program once again cuts educators out of the equation by employing industry professionals to serve as instructors and role models. Or the company may continue to profit wildly off of individual traffic, as students enrolled in online classes turn to Chegg’s online resources. Most likely, Chegg is hedging its bets by maintaining all three.


But despite these divergent paths, a single thread runs through the company’s operations. Chegg’s strategy is fundamentally opportunistic, even parasitic. It feeds off of the wounds of our broken academic system, attracting internet traffic, venture capital, and institutional cooperation by papering over its cracks. The company’s insistence that its reputation is undermined by a small amount of dishonest “misuse” rings hollow: There is no honest use of Chegg.


Criticizing Chegg’s attempts to “disrupt” the education system must not mean ignoring the scale or the urgency of the systemic flaws in that system. Across the board, students need more resources and accommodation while adjusting to online learning; FGLI and nontraditional students need more support, financial and otherwise; exorbitant tuition cannot continue to saddle students with unpayable debts; state and community colleges need more government funding; labor structures need radical reshaping so students do not spend their undergraduate years paralyzed by the fear of graduating jobless. Indeed, Columbia students’ recent collective efforts to tackle these problems head-on—this year’s tuition strike and graduate student strike, the 2017 push to expand mental health resources—might actually be the antithesis of Chegg’s passive, individualistic, and corporatized approach. Knowing that Silicon Valley is waiting to pounce, it becomes that much more obvious that these efforts at change, led by students and educators themselves, must continue and intensify. It’s a tough assignment, but one we have to do ourselves: For once, Chegg doesn’t have any of the answers.


0 comments

Recent Posts

See All