In the old days, college students might turn to classmates for help during all-night cram sessions before final exams. Now their study buddies are just as likely to be commercial websites with step-by-step solutions to textbook problems, copies of previous exams, reams of lecture notes, summaries of literary classics, and real-time help with physics, math and computer science problems. 'It's a backup,' said Chris O'Connor, a pre-med student at Columbia University who relies on the website Cramster to unravel mysteries of complex math and science problems. 'Many professors who return homework won't tell you how you got it wrong. This way you can complete the feedback process.' But as companies with playful names like Cramster, Course Hero, Koofers and SparkNotes are transforming the way undergraduates like O'Connor study, some professors and ethicists are questioning whether such websites encourage cheating and undermine the mental sweat equity of day-to-day learning by seducing students with ready-made solutions and essays.
On Course Hero, for example, students can type in a college name and course number to unearth the previous semester's particle physics final exam. They can find examples of research papers on, say, the causes of World War I. For homework, Cramster supplies step-by-step solutions to problems in more than 200 college-level math and science textbooks. Course Hero offers three million student-submitted items from 400,000 courses at more than 3,500 institutions, including lecture notes, study guides, presentations and research papers.