This question is specifically about a high school course, but it should be applicable to any online course in general.

I was taking a physics course online to skip it in school, those courses are really expensive, so I took the cheapest one that my school was allowing me to take, and it was understandably low quality. This much was ok and expected.

What wasn't ok however, was that all the questions on the quizzes and exams were stolen from the internet. Every single question was taken from some school's "Ch 3 Review Sheet" or "2008 XYZ High School Physics Final Exam" etc. that was made public online.

My parents paid $500 for this course and the people didn't actually write anything themselves, and I'm pretty angry.

So my question is twofold:

  1. Is it ok for a course to do this?
  2. If not, is there any official organization I can complain to.
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    @ff524 I'm pretty sure there's a difference between teaching materials -- since it's doubtful that anyone can think of everything -- and tests, where the test should be based on the course you're teachign.
    – anon
    Apr 4, 2016 at 23:17
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    @ff524 I'm not getting taught off a textbook here that comes with a set of slides and test questions, I'm supposed to be paying them to write their own material.
    – Maltysen
    Apr 4, 2016 at 23:18
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    @ff524 But these weren't taken from a single source. It was taken from a wide range of sources, with no modification.
    – anon
    Apr 4, 2016 at 23:19
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    So far people seem intent to defend the company. My bet is on them being terrible at education, basically for the reasons expressed in this comment. What they did might not be illegal or unethical, but it certainly sounds indefensibly inept.
    – user4512
    Apr 5, 2016 at 1:12

2 Answers 2


Is it ok for a course to do this?

It is common for instructors to use teaching materials from outside sources. There is generally no expectation of originality when it comes to teaching materials, including lecture slides, assignments and exam questions (which may be provided by the publisher, especially at the high school and undergrad level). See this answer for details.

This is similar to the way we don't consider politicians to have plagiarised when they give a speech that was written by a speechwriter - in that scenario, too, there is no expectation that the material was written by the politician who delivers it. (In that situation, we only seem to mind if the speechwriter lifts parts of the speech from another source...) But if a student submits a homework assignment that was written for him by someone else, or an advisor puts chunks of her student's thesis in a paper without proper attribution, we would consider that plagiarism, because there is an expectation of originality.

You wrote

I'm not getting taught off a textbook here that comes with a set of slides and test questions, I'm supposed to be paying them to write their own material.

I'm not sure why you think so. You're not paying anyone to develop course materials. It is common for instructors to use prepared material, including slides, test bank questions, etc. that might come with the textbook. It's also common for instructors to share material between themselves.

What you are paying for is for them to deliver an effective educational experience to you. If they have been educating you effectively, it shouldn't matter whether the materials are original, or whether they came from a test bank or other outside source. If they haven't been educating you effectively, you can complain on those grounds - not because you expect them to develop original materials.

If not, is there any official organization I can complain to.

If you believe you have been treated to a sub-par educational experience, you can complain to whomever is responsible for the course.

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    So... plagiarism is OK if I make money off of it to teach others? Apr 4, 2016 at 23:30
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    @CᴏɴᴏʀO'Bʀɪᴇɴ Plagiarism occurs when there is an expectation of originality and you pass off other's work as your own. In teaching materials, there is no expectation of originality.
    – ff524
    Apr 4, 2016 at 23:32
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    +1 excellent and transparent response, including follow-up! Apr 5, 2016 at 0:46
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft When I said "unpublished teaching materials" in this answer, my intent was to say that an instructor can't write and publish a textbook based on other people's materials without attributing them, not to say that an instructor can't teach with other people's published materials. Is that what you're referring to? If not, I'm not sure what post you're asking about.
    – ff524
    Apr 5, 2016 at 3:45
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    I'd just like to point out that the expectation of originality is culture-specific. I'm from Serbia and there, in general, there is expectation of originality for test/exam questions. While it is in general acceptable to take bits of inspiration from problems in practice books, it is highly unusual to use ready made question banks provided by publishers. "Borrowing" exam questions from colleagues too much usually leads to a slightly negative label of a person who can't make up his own exam questions. On the other hand, universities here are much more teaching-focused.
    – AndrejaKo
    Apr 5, 2016 at 12:47

To comment at length on issues addressed well by @ff524's answer:

First, as a fact, in all my observations, at all levels of education, from k12 through advanced PhD-program stuff, at most 1/100 people create their own course material. That is, yes, 99/100 use something published by traditional publishers, etc. For that matter, probably an exact zero percent of high school teachers use anything other than what is mandated by their school board, which was not created by them... and they would not have been paid or compensated for creating anything anyway, so, ...

At undergrad level, a similar dynamic is in play: most universities, colleges, and even community colleges do prefer "tried and true" texts to anything that their own people might create. (See "prophet in their own land"...) So, actually, it's all the more certification of conformity that they don't use their own in-house material...

Returning to the literal question(s). Low level math is so intensely cliched that no one can claim much originality to anything at all... Ok, given that, can you complain that anyone's not original? No. They aren't original, and they know that, and everyone else does... and how many ways can we ask basic calculus questions? Or can we copyright "2+2=4"? Hopefully not. Nor need we compose original narratives about arithmetic algorithms using Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Nevertheless, a too-literal copy-and-paste of stuff off the internet is cheesy, cheap, etc.

Double-nevertheless, there isn't much room for "original" questions about 350-year-old, or 1,500-year-old, ... math. The fact that your "teachers" didn't create their own content is completely unsurprising, given the realities.

(I note that, due to my luxury of having a low teaching load, blah-blah, I can create more true-to-reality notes on many mathematical topics... But many people do not have a light-enough load to do this, and so on...)

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    Indeed, given everything you've written, it's probably better for K-12 students if their teacher spends more time interacting with them and preparing to teach them more effectively, etc. and less time making up homework problems.
    – ff524
    Apr 4, 2016 at 23:53
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    @ff524, indeed, no doubt. I'm not even a fan of "homework", especially in "math", because this creates/portrays it as yet-another "challenge-response" game, rather than as a mercifully-saving resolution of seemingly-chaotic problems. Tsk. (Sadly, indeed, all, yes, note, all... my prior experience with future k12 teachers of math discloses very unhappy attitudes toward ... math. Yikes.) Apr 4, 2016 at 23:58
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    In my limited experience, most community college math departments that I've dealt with seem to have written their own, custom, in-house basic algebra textbook. It's a little bit of a mystery to me why that is, but the top thing I get back when I ask is that mass-market books are physically too big/overwhelming to students/has too much material they don't want to cover. Apr 5, 2016 at 5:17
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    @DanielR.Collins, I'm happy to hear that people do that! In addition to having a text that is harmonious with the actual course given, this surely saves the students a lot of money! Apr 5, 2016 at 12:10
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    Unfortunately, the quality (mathematical content) tends to be low, and the text is still pricey. Other than that, I would agree with the motivation; I'm still waiting for a high-quality open textbook we can all use for this. OpenStax has gotten pretty close recently. Apr 5, 2016 at 16:47

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