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University of Toronto students fill the campus bookstore in this 2006 photograph. (Philip Cheung/Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail)
University of Toronto students fill the campus bookstore in this 2006 photograph. (Philip Cheung/Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail)

Economy Lab

How new publishing model raises the cost of tuition Add to ...

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance

These days many textbooks come shrink-wrapped, bundled together with access to on-line learning centres such as “myaccountinglab” or “iStudy.”

To students, these online resources look just like improved versions of traditional study guides -- more questions, instant feedback, detailed and constructive hints and explanations.

In fact, they form the foundation of the publishing industry’s new business model.

Textbook publishers are worried. They have seen what has happened to the music industry and the newspaper industry, and they know that they could be next. Yes, it’s illegal to scan a $150 or $200 textbook and post it online, or sell a pirated version on the internet. But it’s not hard to do.

So publishers are looking for something that students can be forced to buy new, something that can’t be pirated

There is one way to guarantee that students will buy something: make it count towards their final grade.

And so publishers have poured resources into the creation of electronic assessment tools: online assignments and quizzes.

For professors, these save hours of preparation and marking time. There is no need to come up with questions, spend hours marking assignments or entering grades. A few clicks are all it takes to set up an on-line assignment -- everything else is done electronically.

From a professor’s perspective, the best thing about these on-line assessment tools is that you can give your students small, easy, weekly quizzes in addition to the regular course materials. This keeps students engaged, and ensures that they don’t postpone studying the materials until a major assignment is due. Plus the instant feedback really does build understanding, and keep students on top of the materials.

So suppose a professor says on his course outline: “Students are required to complete weekly assignments on EconomicsOnLine. These assignments will count for 10 per cent of the final grade.”

The student has to buy a copy of EconomicsOnLine to get that 10 per cent. If the student has bought a new textbook, EconomicsOnLine will be included with the book. But if the student has bought a used textbook, or was planning to share a textbook with a friend, they have to buy EconomicsOnLine directly from the publisher. Such on-line packages typically cost about $50 to $70.

Now publishers’ love-affair with on-line assessment makes sense. Once the assessment tools are set up, they cost minimal amounts to run and administer. Every $50 copy EconomicsOnLine that’s sold adds almost $50 to the company’s profits. And if the on-line assessment counts towards the students’ grades, students have to buy the on-line packages.

From a student’s point of view, however, it’s as if the cost of tuition has gone up by $50.

Students aren’t happy, and the Ontario government has noticed. On July 8, the Ministry of Education issued a memorandum to Ontario’s university presidents, on the subject of “Compulsory Ancillary Fees”, saying:

The Ministry has been informed that at a few institutions, faculty may have made it a requirement that students purchase access to online applications in order to access online assignments, tests and/or examinations that are required for successful completion of a credit course.

The memo goes on to say:

The costs associated with the administration of assignments, tests and examinations should be paid for out of operating revenue, and students should not be required to purchase these applications.

In other words, no Ontario professor can require his or her students to buy any of these on-line learning packages.

But if you’re a first year student, and your prof is requiring you to purchase one of these packages, but you don’t want to -- what do you do?

Since the Ministry issued its memo in July, there has been extensive discussion of this issue between universities, students, and publishers. The result of these discussions has been a clarification of the policy: professors can use online assessment, as long as they make alternative arrangements for students who choose not to buy these online assessment packages. A student just has to talk to his or her professor and ask.

My guess is that few students will take that option. Students know that it's very difficult for a professor to create two assignments that have exactly the same level of difficulty. They won't want to take the risk that some "alternative arrangement" will be more difficult than the online assessment package. Plus students work together, so no student will opt out of the on-line assessment packages if all of their friends are opting in. And, in fact, on-line assessment packages really do help students learn -- in many ways they're better than a standard textbook, so students might not want to opt-out.

So it's now an open question: will the new guidelines make any difference to how things work in university classrooms? My guess is: probably not.

Eds Note: The original post has been clarified to reflect reflect a slight change in the ministry policy

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