The Gig Economy is coming for college work

EEarly in my career, I produced hundreds of pages of new lecture notes each year. One day, a senior colleague, perhaps taking pity on my 4/4 teaching load, stopped me in the hallway to remind me that these notes were my intellectual property. “Don’t give them away,” she warned. “Treat them like gold.”

His advice could not change my poor working conditions, but it was helpful. For the first time, I considered the possibility of my lecture notes having value beyond the walls of my classroom. How much value? I was wondering. Almost two decades later, ed-tech company Chegg answered my question – $80.

In early March, Chegg launched a marketing campaign to convince educators to sell their educational materials to the company’s recently launched Uversity platform. Chegg describes Uversity as a “collaborative learning library,” although many educators may disagree with this characterization. The message I received was addressed to “Hello Professor LinkedIn Member” and informed me that professors who have already shared their teaching materials with Chegg earn an average of $9,500.

The post went on to break down Chegg’s assessed valuation of different types of school supplies, with a caveat that the listed price reflects the company’s current 50% bonus – a limited time offer. Apparently, if I rushed to take advantage of this promotion, I could cash out up to $375 per practice exam (limit 4), $375 per study guide (limit 4), $120 for lecture notes (limit 15 ), $75 per practice quiz (limit 5), $120 per case study (limit 5), and $120 for lab notes (limit 10).

Chegg doesn’t turn scrap metal into gold. By devaluing the intellectual property of academics, it turns gold into garbage.

Chegg’s purported goal is to provide “reliable study materials for students written by dedicated professionals” while compensating professionals like me for “prior hard work.” But does $80 or even $120 per conference (if I took advantage of Chegg’s limited-time bonus) represent market rate compensation?

To gauge Chegg’s per-word rate, I did a quick calculation using notes I had prepared for a lecture on Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry.” The lecture is 4,960 words, although early in my career it was almost twice as long – I relied more on notes then. What was the value of all that research, writing, editing, and adapting to Chegg? Very little.

the Association of Editorial Freelancers suggests charging 16 to 20 cents per word for most types of non-fiction writing for hire. Chegg’s rate is closer to 1 cent per word.

If you look at Chegg’s rate on an hourly basis, the numbers are even more dismal. As anyone who has written a lecture knows, one hour in class usually requires at least three hours of preparation and often much more. And conferences are rarely a one-off affair. They tend to be updated annually. My conference on “The cultural industry”, which I have been developing for more than a decade, is probably the result of at least 20 hours of work. At $80 per conference, that’s $4 an hour.

To add insult to injury, there is no guarantee that every educator who wants to profit from Uversity can. All Educators first go through a verification process to confirm they are the real deal (at least by Chegg’s standards). Since Chegg states that Certified Educators who upload content “may be eligible to receive payment”, there also does not appear to be a guarantee that every course note, exam, quiz, case study, lab note or study guide will be automatically converted to cash.

For those who are paid, the conditions are troubling. Educators who contribute to Uversity grant Chegg the rights to their educational content for three years. During this time, the company may copy, adapt, modify or distribute the content as it sees fit. After the three-year term ends, Chegg remains free to continue using the “derivative works” it created during the initial license term.

In short, Chegg pays nominal fees for your lecture notes and insists he can do almost anything he wants with them.

VShegg was founded in the early 2000s by a group of Iowa State University students who recognized that the price of textbooks had outpaced inflation. The company’s original business proposition reflected the sharing economy philosophy of the time. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a textbook you’ll only use for a semester when you can rent it for a fraction of the price instead?

The business quickly grew to include several adjoining areas, including a highly controversial tutoring service known as Chegg Study. For many years, Chegg Study has been a one-stop-shop for answers to homework and test problems in STEM fields. Fueled by the collective intelligence of more than 70,000 Indian independentsmost with advanced degrees in math, science, technology, or engineering, Chegg offers 24-hour tutoring services to students around the world at a reasonable subscription rate ($14.95 per month).

Kristen Uroda for The Chronicle

Unsurprisingly, Chegg’s follower count surged when college life went online at the start of the pandemic. For a time, his stock did the same. But his fortune took a downward turn in 2021; the company lost three-quarters of its value between February and November.

This rapid loss of value led to an action initiated by the shareholders class action alleging that Chegg’s growth in the pandemic era was “largely due to the facilitation of cheating”, which investors memorably described as “an unstable business proposition”. That lawsuit followed another: In September, textbook publisher and former Chegg business partner Pearson sued the company for copyright infringement.

Nevertheless, depending on your point of view, Chegg University may seem like a reasonable idea. Why not extract value from teaching materials that otherwise sit on teachers’ computers? Chegg’s offer may even seem generous, like someone walking into your house and saying, “Hey, I’ll give you a few bucks for all that junk in your garage.” But there is an important difference. With Uversity, Chegg isn’t turning scrap metal into gold. By devaluing the intellectual property of academics, it turns gold into garbage

That there is a market for Chegg’s predatory practices reflects the grim reality of higher education in the 2020s. Like stories about the New majority of faculty reveal, a critical mass of faculty members do not earn enough money to support themselves and their families. As a result, side concerts are already a norm in higher education. The most privileged among our ranks sell patents and take on lucrative gigs – the kind of work you can also display in a biography or highlight in a promotional folder. Many more academics are engaging in work that may be loosely related to their academic roles, but which are less lucrative, valued, and visible. This work includes tutoring children, helping wealthy teenagers play around with the college admissions system, writing practice exams for test prep companies, and editing articles and books for more privileged colleagues. Earning honest money for the brainwork you’ve already done might just seem like a more efficient way to get yourself hooked up for a gig.

So I’m not judging colleagues who have earned a little extra money through Chegg (or who are considering doing so). What is happening on Uversity is shocking and inequitable, but it is not unique. Even though most academics don’t want to talk about it — either because they’re embarrassed to admit they’re doing this work or because they deny how bad working conditions have become in our profession — Thousands of qualified academics are already working as tutors, instructional designers, editors and ghostwriters. Since much of this work is facilitated by online work platforms like Upwork and Wyzant, which take 20-25% of a user’s earnings, academics are also already used to being underpaid by technology companies.

Tech platforms like Chegg are to blame for this, but they aren’t the only culprits. For years, higher education leaders placed an extremely low monetary value on academic work (in some cases, posting teaching positions without pay). Nothing now prevents technology companies from doing the same.

Maria D. Ervin