Our Post on BostInno: “Should Students Pay to Submit Homework? Publishers Think So”

Editor’s Note: Today, we published a post on BostInnovation detailing “The Digital Homework Lock-In,” a troubling new development that’s forcing some students to pay close to $100 to submit their homework!

Read more below, and be sure to spread the word—students deserve better.

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It takes a lot to shock America’s college students when it comes to the rising costs associated with higher education.

But just last month, TorrentFreak broke news about a proposed textbook pricing scheme that caused student readers to erupt with anger, logging over more than 400 comments on the site.

TorrentFreak’s piece covered a controversial new patent awarded to Dr. Joseph Henry Vogel, a Professor of Economics at University of Puerto Rico. Vogel’s patent is designed to lock students into buying his textbook by bundling it with a special access code needed to take the course.

Unfortunately, this new patent issue is not the first time we’ve heard about professors forcing their own books into students’ backpacks.

In the summer of 2011, Boundless uncovered a syllabus from a professor at a large public university in Florida who required his students to buy the most expensive (read: newest) edition of his text in order to gain 5 percent of their course grade.

After listing pricing options, the professor kindly explained:

… the only way for me to keep the cost of our textbook low is to guarantee a pre-determined volume of sales. It’s all about economies of scale!

How’s that for an economics lesson?

The textbook industry is a broken market, and “innovations” like those above give students less choice and only serve to drive them deeper into the textbook trap.

Seeking Greater Transparency in Higher Ed

The cost of higher education in America is growing increasingly out of reach for most students. Last year, student loan debt passed the trillion-dollar mark, a frightening but unsurprising product of the skyrocketing cost of a college degree.

With the price tag of a private college education tipping past $200,000 at many schools, it would seem imperative that students have a good sense of what they’re getting for their money.

Yet the textbook schemes described above are just a small part of a troubling lack of transparency regarding the total net costs associated with getting a college degree in this country.

Thankfully, the federal government has taken steps to shed some light on these pricing concerns, revising the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) in 2008 to require colleges to more effectively communicate their total cost of attendance and financial aid offerings.

The textbook industry is taken firmly to task in the revised HEOA. StudentPIRGS.org provides a quick summary of the 3 provisions of the act aimed at reducing publishers’ grip on students:

1. Price disclosure.  Publishers are required to disclose prices and revision information when marketing textbooks to professors.  This law helps counteract the “broken market” at the root of high textbook prices by providing all of the information professors need to identify and consider lower cost options.

2. Unbundling.  Ever bought a textbook packaged with a CD or passcode you never used?  Thanks to HEOA, publishers now are required to offer all of the items in textbook bundles for sale separately.  This gives students freedom to buy what they need and not what they don’t.

3. Textbook lists.  The new law also asks colleges to provide the list of assigned textbooks for each course (including ISBNs and prices) during registration.  That way, students can plan ahead for the expense, and they have more time to shop around for the best deals.

Given that they have so much to lose from the boost in transparency required by these provisions, it’s no surprise that publishers are dialing up their efforts to find clever new ways to hide textbook costs from students.

McGraw-Hill, for example, has proposed forcing students to buy e-books for their classes upon registration, whether they’d like to or not. Their justification? Guaranteed volume can result in lower prices.

Watch out–there’s that economics lesson boomeranging back again.

Increased volume of textbook purchases certainly can result in lower prices, but the elimination of student choice doesn’t give publishers any incentive to improve their antiquated products.

The textbook industry’s anti-competitive tactics are well documented—printing expensive “new” editions that offer little change from previous versions; offering “custom” school editions that can only be purchased at the local book store; a lack of transparency regarding pricing; and, of course, “bundling” textbooks with useless additional content or features to drive more sales (i.e. CD-ROM study guides that go un-opened.)

At Boundless, we’ve been keeping our eye on the growth of a particularly troubling instance of publishers trying to lock students into purchasing their wares: the bundling of textbook content with expensive digital homework platforms that are required for students’ classes.

The Digital Homework Lock-In

Digital homework platforms alleviate a very real pain point for professors—the difficulty of grading homework for hundreds of students in a reasonable amount of time.

Informal assessments like homework offer critical feedback on students’ learning, but as class sizes continue to creep up, it becomes all but impossible for professors to handle the grading load.

Many professors do not have the luxury of teaching assistants, so they rely on digital homework platforms—software that enables students to complete digital assignments and receive real-time feedback centered on course content.

In theory, these platforms should be a gift to students as well, allowing them to submit homework with ease and track their understanding over time.

Yet in reality, many of these homework systems are being used to trap students into purchasing expensive digital copies of their assigned textbooks, regardless of whether or not they have the text or prefer a print alternative.

For example, students who are assigned homework through the widely-used Aplia platform find themselves stuck with a difficult choice: shell out $90 for the cheapest access code to the platform complete with a “free” digital copy of their textbook, or forego doing homework entirely and taking the corresponding hit to their grade.

In other words, a student who already has a copy of the textbook, either from a friend or a previous class, still has to pay the full price of admission to the Aplia platform in order to submit their homework.

Not surprisingly, a quick survey of Twitter and Facebook reveals that students aren’t too keen on platforms like Aplia. One student, for example, sums up her experience with Aplia as “costly, unethical and no value added!”

Pricing concerns aside, most of these homework platforms also offer uninspiring user experiences, replete with bugs and frequent downtime.

More importantly, packaging e-books with homework platforms without offering standalone access to each could violate the unbundling provision of the HEOA, as it requires that students must be able to purchase textbooks separately from supplementary materials, and vice versa.

Thankfully, some publishers still allow students to purchase such standalone access to their systems. Pearson’s MasteringBiology platform allows students to purchase an access code for around $50 without any textbook requirement.

Yet these standalone options are dwindling for students, and they’re extremely difficult to find on Google, school bookstores, and even publishers’ websites.

Building a More Effective Homework Platform

The quest for a more affordable, high-quality homework platform starts with student awareness. Sadly, most students don’t even question the bundling issues described above, as they’re primarily concerned with doing well in their courses.

In order to create the competition necessary to drive creation of effective products, it’s essential to separate these assessment tools from required course content.

If students have no choice but to buy into platforms that trap them into purchasing publisher content, neither the content nor the software will improve, as their creators won’t have any true incentive to heed consumer demand.

If you know any college students, or are a college student yourself, spread the word about the perils of the digital homework lock-in–it’s time for students to know what they’re up against.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user MoneyBlogNewz