EPISODE 185

Supporting Students and Faculty on the Same Platform – Andrew Grauer, CEO of Course Hero

06-09-2021

Andrew Grauer was just trying to solve his own problems with finding study help as a student at Cornell University, but it turns out his initial solutions, and those that followed, have also worked for millions of students. The company Grauer co-founded, Course Hero, provides an online learning platform where students access millions of course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and 65,000 educators. The popular site also offers 24/7 tutoring. “We were helping students to anytime, anywhere, go connect to the knowledge directly that came from others. Getting more accessible, on-demand quality help to learn was the problem and the opportunity.” As for faculty – who were not uniformly positive about the service when it started catching on – Grauer and his team realized that they needed support as well to find the best instructional materials. “We also believe in amplifying great teachers and great teaching resources.” Check out this episode to learn more about how today’s students learn and the long-range implications of the pandemic-driven pivot to online instruction. Also hear what personal quality Grauer thinks, in addition to passion, is “super important” to building a successful business.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Rishi Desai. Today on Raise the Line, I'm happy to be joined by Andrew Grauer, Co-Founder and CEO of Course Hero, an online learning platform where students access millions of course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators.

More than 50,000 faculty across the U.S., Canada and Australia have joined the Course Hero Educator Community. It also offers 24/7 tutoring. He started the company back in 2006 while still a student himself at Cornell University. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Andrew Grauer: Thanks for having me, Rishi.

Dr. Rishi Desai: So maybe we can start with your background and how you managed to start a company while you're still in college. How did that happen? Or what was that like?

Andrew Grauer: I feel pretty lucky. I mean, it was sophomore year of college and it's almost like it was an extracurricular hobby. I put together a club on campus and we met up in the Engineering quad at the library. And, you know, we were building this while we were also students in college.

Dr. Rishi Desai: What was the impetus for doing this? Most students in college are trying to figure out how to get a few more hours of sleep, or maybe, find a free pizza or free meal? You're building Course Hero. So, what was the motivation for doing that?

Andrew Grauer: Yeah, 20/20 hindsight bias here. Fifteen years ago almost, now. First of all, I was just building out of empathy, you know? I was a student and we were building for students and I think that's probably the luckiest and most important thing about building Course Hero was we're solving for our own pain points and getting better help when I needed it. You know, it was clearly inefficient. It felt awkward sometimes to get help. Potentially disingenuous; not available when I needed it. So just getting more accessible, on-demand quality help to learn in class was the problem and the opportunity. 

It was as simple as then trying to translate that into a product visual. We had in our heads that this was basically like a Wikipedia, but instead of with encyclopedic topic ontology, it was built around a school's course catalog and course ontology. And that gave us a shared visual of how to start helping students connect with a platform, a library, as opposed to trying to find directly a tutor, a classmate, a professor out of class, a TA out of class to connect with to then get to the knowledge. We were helping students be able to anytime, anywhere, go connect to the knowledge directly that came from others. 

That was the direction that we were running in. And you know, for me, I didn't have any of the analogous experiences, being a first-time entrepreneur, to kind of learn from and have that pattern recognition. I got the confidence to just jump in. It is hard to pick up a moment, but around that time, I was taking an Entrepreneurship lecture series course at Cornell, and it brought in a number of successful alumni that were speaking about how they built these large, successful, complex organizations. But if they really rewound to the beginning, it was all very simple. These things that become really complex over time are just a compounding set of simple decisions throughout time. 

So, successful people come in and just tell me that the most important thing is to just do it -- I don't know if they are channeling their Nike: Just Do It -- and then once going, just keep going. That was powerful. It's one of the things that still sticks with me of how did I jump in and get going, even though I knew so little at the time. 

Dr. Rishi Desai: So a couple of interesting ideas you brought up. This idea of compounding simple ideas, that's a really cool way of framing it. The other thing that you said is you put an ontology together because you had this idea of what you saw with Wikipedia and kind of morphed into what you needed. It's one thing to create an ontology when there's nothing that exists, but that's not the situation that you had. You had a framework of school and professors. So, how did they reconcile an existing ontology with this new one that you were trying to superimpose? How did it go over? 

Andrew Grauer: Yeah. If we take this high-level concept of aggregating, organizing, and disseminating information -- related to academics but even more specifically to a course ontology next to a subject ontology or related to literature titles or textbook titles or things that are learned and taught in schools and different programs -- that concept was really powerful. There already have been lots of different libraries and platforms and corpuses of content available in the world. But trying to figure out how do you take these relatively siloed and inefficient structures of content that students have, teachers have that are shared to very limited audiences for short amounts of time? There's so much wastage. It's always been about like, how do you create an ecosystem in a set of incentives to want different players to participate? One of the pieces of advice that were given to me at the time was "Andrew, if you build it, they will come." And you know, this was back in the time of YouTube or Google....relatively early days. And I took it as maybe, some of the worst advice I've ever gotten because as soon as we launched it, they did not come. 

I think, for us, really thinking about what is really going on in students' heads, tutors, educators, and figuring out what would make them want to participate on the platform really became an ongoing way of thinking to inform product development over time. 

Dr. Rishi Desai: So it's a really interesting story and I've often heard the exact same advice: "If you build it, they will come" and they didn't initially but now they have. So what changed? What was it that you guys did differently? What was it that learners did? Maybe just time marketing? What was it that caused them to initially not come and then come?

Andrew Grauer: You mentioned time, and I think having a dream is super powerful. I think it energizes me. It energizes those on our team about why are we doing this in the first place. How do we make a more open, larger, accessible platform that provides tutoring-like help, support to millions and millions of students? Like, that's an amazing dream to provide better or affordable access to learning and teaching.

That's powerful. But then when you bring it back to today, or launch time...at any moment in time, 'today vs. dream' is such a dichotomy and I think being willing to do a lot of small steps is key. I really think that grittiness, on top of passion, is super important for aggregating content, building tools, building services, iteratively trying to figure out what drives traffic and what is a go-to-market strategy. Letting it bake and marinate if you will, and then figuring out what is a business model on top of that? And once you even have that sort of flywheel of content and tools to distribution to subscribers to more contributors and letting it compound over years...it's so easy to say but so hard to do. 

So I think really being proud of small wins in terms of search engine optimization, conversion rate optimization, user research that then leads to a new feature, multiple failures, but then one successful one -- even if it's a five percent win in terms of user satisfaction, in terms of traffic. The thing is that it ultimately makes the platform better and better over time. It's a way to connect kind of short-term wins with building towards a long-term vision.

Dr. Rishi Desai: When you describe this to students, or when you talk to faculty, how do you explain it to them so they can take the world that they know...course is in the name and so I can wrap my head around that as a student or faculty member. I'm like, "Yep, I've done it for ten years. I know what a course is." Walk me through what Course Hero is in a way that I can really candidly understand. What would that sound like to a student versus a faculty member? And how different are they?

Andrew Grauer: Course Hero helps you in your courses. It helps students get unstuck, you know? A lot of those times when you're raising your hand in class or don't feel comfortable raising your hand in class, or then you're working on your problem set and you're stuck on Question 6 and Problem Set 8 of your Linear Algebra 192 class. You're stuck there and you don't know where to start or you think you know, but you're not sure. How do we provide on-demand tutor-like access and trying to build it so that we are fast? We're quality help and we're affordable help. That's what we want to be. 

You're stuck on homework. You need personalized help on-demand in a quality way, and affordable way. That's what we want to be building...better content, better tools, better services to do that is what Course Hero strives to be for students. Or whether it's practicing for an exam, whether it's working on a different lab or paper, we're here to help. 

For faculty -- and we have now over 60,000 U.S. college instructors on the platform -- what we do for them is, similarly to students getting stuck, educators need to find and create teaching materials, assessment materials, and then deliver. And so we're also building a platform that has not just learning resources, but teaching resources on it, to help faculty. We also believe in amplifying great teachers and great teaching resources. 

A lot of what we've built out over time is a set of resources to recognize and celebrate amazing teachers and their resources so they can teach their class, but also teach across classes, across campuses, across geographies. That's how we connect the idea of repository resources for educators to help other educators, but also students locally, nationally or globally.

Dr. Rishi Desai: I know that COVID has been really disruptive with students...figuring out what to do with their classes and whatnot. In some ways, I feel like it's even more disruptive to faculty and educators and I think having that network seems like it'd be quite useful. Have you seen interesting, maybe, unexpected things out of this educator network through this last year and a half, while everyone's kind of trying to figure out how to deal with COVID-19?

Andrew Grauer: Yeah, especially when it was just starting. A lot of faculty were asked to go online in a really short amount of time. Many educators actually never taught online before, and they had to go learn and teach a class fully remotely. So for us, in the educator community that we've facilitated and built on Course Hero, we almost did a set of office hours, if you will, for educators. We took faculty who already have developed expertise through their experience teaching online and connected them with other educators. We also hosted a number of events and shared their resources to facilitate a fast learning curve and creating a better experience in their teaching environments for their students.

That was a huge burden, and a huge amount of stress was not just put on students, but on these amazing educators who were trying to do the best in the moment. What we saw was an explosion of usage from educators on the platform searching so many more resources online for themselves, helping to create better classes. Whether it's searching presentations, assessment materials, syllabi, and many other types of resources to be able to teach their classes better, in addition to trying to reach students on the platform, or students also needing so much more remote help when they were in a remote learning environment.

Dr. Rishi Desai: What about parents? I'm just thinking out loud here. But do you see a lot of homeschooling happen where parents jump on and use Course Hero as a supplement for what they're doing in teaching their students in a home environment? Has that happened? 

Andrew Grauer: I don't have immediate, specific metrics on it but we do know that there's a lot more at-home learning and facilitated by not just high school students in this case, but also the parents. It's hard to put data to that on our platform explicitly, but it's definitely something that has grown. It might regress to an average a bit, but I think that will also continue to be a macro-trend that happens through COVID and afterward. 

Dr. Rishi Desai: So, for higher ed institutions, you know, 50 years ago, a lot of the value was in the brick-and-mortar lecture halls and the magic that was happening in those halls. And when you were at Cornell as a student, you felt pain, you know? I think that's the word you use...pain point. A lot of brick-and-mortar institutions, higher ed institutions, are changing the value proposition, right? They can't be what it used to be 50 years ago. What do you think are some of the trends that maybe got accelerated by COVID but are some of the macro-trends in higher ed specifically that you're noticing that probably won't regress after COVID is over?

Andrew Grauer: Related to my previous comment, I do think that crises tend to accelerate change, things that have already been in motion, and they will continue post-crisis. In the case of remote learning, it's been a decade-long trend of more institutions hosting more online classes, and more fully online institutions sprouting up and growing and I think that trend will continue. I don't think there will be a lot of power in institutions providing an experience that cannot be replicated online. 

I think that people actually underestimate, undervalue the speed at which actually institutions responded to the COVID environment. We got to see that firsthand, and what educators did, what students did. There was obviously a lot of friction. There was a lot of stress. But I think that it makes the system stronger. We actually moved to have a day that is back-to-back Zoom school for students just like we're experiencing in the work environment. It's quite stressful and probably not the best way to learn. And I think we saw a lot of efficiencies, we increased a lot of accessibility. I think accessibility, flexibility, quality of pre-created materials and environments and tools, is powerful. That won't go away because one can increase the quality of tools and production value when you can create it in advance and reuse it over and over. The quality goes up, the cost is down and you can do things that you just can't do in person. 

But in person, there are so many things from relationships to trust to brainstorms that one cannot do online so I think it's yet to be seen exactly what the comparative advantages become of in-person versus online. But I think hybrid models are gonna be incredibly important. Just like we're seeing a lot of the predictions that will be happening in the workplace I think will be analogous to what happens in higher education. 

I think the trend towards accessibility, affordability, quality because of scale and reach minus cost is something that will continue to happen as more classes, more programs, and more certificates are provided by institutions, both existing and more innovations within and from outside current institutions. And then, I also think that the opportunity for in-person will continue to be strong. Exactly how that mixes for a fully remote versus fully in-person to hybrid remains to be seen. 

Dr. Rishi Desai: Yeah, and also I think to that point, we'll have to define better: what is it that we need to be in-person for? What is that activity where in-person makes a lot of sense? What is it where in-person doesn't make a lot of sense? Defining that more concretely will probably help structure out that hybrid model.

Andrew Grauer: That'll change over time too, you know? Depending on what technology can do well and what it can't do well. And whether you can create a great lab experience online -- there's innovation happening there -- versus what you can't do? What sort of conversations and relationships can one build online versus what's better in-person? And it will be an interaction. I think a lot of other challenges have been surfaced with regards to equity. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit different minority groups much harder and I think it's concerning what will happen to public funding for community colleges. There's already been a macro-trend of what happens to smaller, Liberal Arts colleges and programs. These are really difficult, complicated topics with regards to the impact of accessibility and affordability for different types of students. 

I do get very excited, though, about the opportunity of different institutions, combined with different technologies, to be able to provide more access to great teachers, great content, and great tools in a way that its inherent in the model that having more students is better impact and better business as opposed to rewarding exclusivity and yield rates.

Dr. Rishi Desai: So that's probably a good segue, then, in terms of where you are and the journey you followed. You started talking about empathy as being a core driver of what got you into this space and what you think about in terms of how to care for the learner's needs. What do you think are some things that health care professionals, which are a big part of our audience, or even educators or health care educators, should be thinking about as they start imagining what the next 5 to 10 years look like down the road? What is some advice that you might share with them?

Andrew Grauer: There's so many different ways to take that in, and at Osmosis, you guys are so close to this in such a wonderful way. Of course, we also see a lot of students studying biology and sciences, and health care. First of all, when we're developing programs, I think we have to get more and more aware of the demographics of those we're serving. So many students in higher education, in these programs are already adults, you know? They are parents. They're working. They have kids. This is not an outlier minority. This is the new normal. I think being aware of that, and trying to process that in the context of 40% of students go to college and don't graduate within 6 years of matriculation, is something that is a secular trend and it will continue. 

I think it's a wonderful thing that there has been over the last year an increase in enrollments going into health care. I think it is wonderful to see that sort of humanity...that in response to a health crisis nationally and globally that people are running at the problem and want to dedicate their lives to help. On a more individual level, all I can cherish is a set of values that I believe in which are, I think, being a dreamer, being optimistic, but also being willing to be gritty and persistent to make progress towards the dream through lots of challenges, lots of up and down and learning from it along the way. It's not necessarily subject-specific. It's really a way of thinking, a way of acting that I do think is apropos for any student from my perspective.

Dr. Rishi Desai: That's really good advice and I think that is probably a great place to leave it. Because I think you set a good example with your own career and your journey. Anyone that knows your story, as you've told it just now, can see how they could potentially model themselves after what you've done. I think it's really cool that you started with the pain point instead of doing what I did -- and frankly, almost everyone does -- which is complain. You set out to find a solution and a solutions-oriented mindset is obviously gonna be very necessary in the coming year. So, thank you for sharing that story and for joining us today. 

Andrew Grauer: Thank you, Rishi.

Dr. Rishi Desai: Fantastic. Well, I'm Dr. Rishi Desai. Thanks for joining today's show. Remember to do your part to flatten the curve and raise the line. We're all in this together.