There’s a special question that university students ask at the start of each semester. A question whose answer, if you’re lucky, will be a resounding “no”:
“Is the textbook really required?”
Textbook publishers have worked hard to make sure the answer is always a “yes.” Digital Learning Resources (DLRs) are here, and they bring unaffordable textbooks, inaccessible methods of evaluation, and an inherently inequitable learning environment along with them. How did we get here, what is a DLR, and what can be done to address their impact on post-secondary education?
Do I really need to buy the book?
The high costs of textbooks are infamous for the barrier they create between students and an affordable education. Between 2006 and 2016, textbook costs increased at four times the rate of inflation (1). In 2011, students spent nearly $500 to $600 per semester on books alone (2).
To combat this, students got creative in reducing their textbook expenses — buying used, sharing with friends, renting, and checking out from the library/using library course reserves, to name a few. Even campus bookstores offer to buy used books back from students and the internet made processes like this even easier (3).
For example, at Ontario Tech, students maintain the “Ontario Tech Used Book Exchange,” a Facebook page that facilitates the trade of used textbooks. The used textbook market is undeniably strong and students rely on its strength to save hundreds of dollars every year.
Because of this, publishers needed a new strategy. To them, the old model of selling print textbooks was “outdated” (read: no longer grossly profitable). The solution? DLRs – online platforms that host textbook content, quizzes, exams, and assignments. To gain access, students must buy codes that, when redeemed, grant access to course material and evaluation. They are bound to the individual student and they cannot be reused, reshared, or resold. In introducing this technology, publishers found a way to not only solve the “problem” of the used market, but they also found a way to profit off of student expenses more than ever before.
Okay, that’s the background stuff out of the way. We’ve established why DLRs exist and what they are. So... how exactly did DLRs sneak into the required materials listed on your syllabus?
The Economics of “Yeah…they can totally afford that, probably”
Sales representatives speak to instructors and their students directly, in class. I personally listened to the same half-hearted pitch at the start of at least one course each semester. Whether or not students are convinced to buy is inconsequential — publishers are only invited to the classroom to show students how to use the platform. The actual decision is made behind the scenes with instructors; they’re the customer, after all.
And publishers offer some pretty sweet deals if the instructor buys in: platforms can create, publish, and grade assignments automatically, or even provide chapter-by-chapter lecture slides. Beyond digitizing textbooks, the publisher offers instructors resources to make teaching easier. Admittedly, this is a pretty convincing sell, especially because instructors don’t need to consider a very important factor: cost. Remember, they aren’t buying.
Economists call this the “Principal-Agent Problem,” and it’s a contributing factor to skyrocketing prices. The problem arises when a decision maker (the agent) makes a choice on behalf of the person whom the decision would impact (the principal) (3). In this case, instructors are the agent and students are the principal. This process — whereby institutions allow publishers access to instructors, who in turn mandate a purchase without needing to make it themselves — is the opposite of what a fair and accessible education looks like.
All these conveniently pre-packaged evaluations are hosted online behind a paywall, and students must be willing to pay up if they want access to their evaluations. Don’t want to cough up the money? At Ontario Tech, that could cost you 20% of your final grade, per course.
Guidelines like this can put students at risk. During my time as a student at Ontario Tech, my program-specific student association handled a number of cases where this cost forced members to choose between food for the week or academic success.
Luckily — or unluckily, depending on what school you go to — institutional policy varies. Some are very friendly to students and all but restrict the sale of DLRs. Others allow it in droves. This dissonance is partially thanks to Ontario’s unclear directives on DLRs in the Tuition and Ancillary Fee Guidelines, a provincially published policy that sets parameters for how institutions should charge tuition and related fees.
While DLRs are explicitly mentioned in the Guidelines, the Ministry leaves it up to institutions to write their own policy. This can be problematic, especially when students are asked to pay more than the institutional policy allows. I’ve spoken with many students in this situation, and even in my capacity as a student leader, I’m often unsure of where to direct them.
Variations in institutional policy might benefit students enrolled at schools with a more empathic approach, but the lack of direction furthers inequity across schools in Ontario as the maximum cost you might pay to access exams – and the weight of those exams – is influenced by a number of factors, including the priorities of the institution itself.
If it sounds ridiculous that you’ve already paid tuition and might have to fork over more to access evaluation material on a system that isn’t Canvas (or Blackboard, etc.), or if you’re wondering what you’re paying for if tuition doesn’t fully include instruction and evaluation — I wish I had an answer for you.
The money students spend should fully contribute to their education. The cost of tuition should include ALL costs associated with instruction and evaluation — anything else is a breeding ground for inequity within the classroom.
Stop Playing Hide and Seek with Tuition Fees
In the meantime, there needs to be transparency about DLR costs. Institutions should require that instructors communicate these requirements at the time of course registration. Currently, students enroll in classes and wait for the syllabus to be released before discovering they could be paying an additional $563 (4) per semester for an equal chance at success. When you’re a student on a budget, most dollars are already assigned a job. Additional, surprise fees — in a system you thought you already paid for — are beyond disruptive.
It may sound like I’m arguing that the software provided by publishers is inherently evil — I’m not. Some students have reported that they benefit from the resources that these online tools offer, but no student was happy to be forced into paying out of pocket for them.
There are alternatives to DLRs and traditional textbooks that are free, publicly available, and have the same range of flexibility that DLRs offer. Open Educational Resources (OERs) provide instructors with the means to deliver courses exactly how they’d like, without bankrupting students. OERs are also digital, so instructors can utilize the same multi-media tools that DLRs boast.
By developing and publishing OERs, instructors can not only aid their own students but can also help instructors across Canada facilitate their classes in a more student-centric way. The primary draw of OERs is how accessible they are, which is to say that the tools publishers distribute aren’t the issue, but using them as a way to extract cash out of a cash-strapped population is exploitative at best.
And institutions may encourage this behavior by moving away from hiring full-time faculty in favor of part-time sessional instructors, who are paid less for their time and receive nearly no training. In an attempt to balance their workload, sessional instructors might be intrigued by systems that take so much overhead off their hands. Is it a perfect solution? Of course not. Is the appeal understandable? Absolutely.
The bottom line is that requiring additional payment to access your exams, tests, assignments, and quizzes is like paying cover at the door when you’ve already got tickets to the show. These requirements opportunistically take advantage of the stress surrounding academic evaluation, capitalize on student ambition, and corrupt the nature of learning in the name of profit. And frankly, it needs to stop.
Written by Josh Sankarlal, President at the Ontario Tech Student Union and current Observer representative at OUSA's Steering Committee. You can check out who Josh is at his intro blog, or meet him as if for the first time and ready OUSA's 2021 interview with the OTSU favourite.
- Costello, Eamon, et al. "Determining Textbook Cost, Formats, and Licensing with Google Books API: A Case Study from an Open Textbook Project." Information Technology and Libraries, vol. 38, no. 1, Mar. 2019, pp. 91+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A604896405/AONE?u=ko_acd_uoo&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=4fde795c. Accessed 1 June 2022.
- Bascaramurty , D. (2011, August 16). How to cut the cost of textbooks. Globe and Mail. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from theglobeandmail.com
- Kestaunbaum, D. Goldstein, J (2016, September 5) Why Textbook Prices Keep Climing (No 573) [Audio Podcast Episode] In Planet Money. NPR. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/494266135