Senate endorses guiding principles for online assessment materials

While textbook costs are a well-established financial hardship for students, the Senate has now turned its attention towards the costs of digital learning materials by endorsing a set of principles about their use for assessment.

The endorsement was made during the May 2019 meeting and encompasses a set of guiding principles on the costs of third-party digital learning materials. This establishes a $65 limit on the costs of additional materials and that assessments from paid materials should only account for 20 per cent of the course mark.

The principles were “really trying to address the issue of the rising cost of not only textbooks but especially digital learning materials, and digital learning materials that are often used for assessment,” said Max Holmes, a UBC Vancouver student senator and a Vancouver student representative on the Board of Governors (BoG).

While many online learning materials that can be accessed through Canvas are included as part of tuition, third-party materials such as Macmillan Launchpad are also used at UBC, creating an additional cost.

Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) Dr. Christina Hendricks said one of the values underlying the principles was the idea that assessment is included as part of tuition payments.

“Another value underlying these principles is that assessment is included in tuition,” she said.

“And so what we’re basically saying is that students are already paying for it, right? And if we ask them to pay again, you know that there has to be a really good reason for that.”

Holmes and Hendricks said guiding principles were chosen over a fixed policy to signify the new requirements to publishers and encourage more discussion at the Senate about the financial burdens purchasing assessment materials can have on students.

Holmes is hopeful that if UBC takes action to endorse principles capping the costs of online learning materials the university will be ready if wider policy change is enacted at the provincial level.

The Ontario and Alberta governments already have policies outlining the costs of digital learning materials. Earlier this year, the BC government also committed $3.26 million towards the development of open educational resources (OERs), which Holmes sees as a shift towards prioritizing accessible post-secondary education.

“We wanted to really set the stage and show that we are taking action on this issue and that we have principles of guidance here,” he said. “And then indicate ... [that] if a policy needs to be created, we now have the framework for a policy.”

Learning in the open

This topic was first brought to the attention of the Senate in May 2018, when Holmes, members of the Senate Teaching and Learning Committee, and then-Academic Director of CTLT Dr. Simon Bates gave a presentation on the costs of digital learning materials. Since then, the Teaching and Learning Committee has been consulting with the AMS, UBC Bookstore and CTLT to create the now-finalized principles.

During the consultation process, data was collected from the Bookstore to assess the prevalence of third-party paid materials being used in UBC courses and come up with an estimated cost.

From the consultation, they found that courses at the 100 level used digital learning materials the most, with Science being the top faculty.

According to Hendricks, CTLT has been working to help faculty members incorporate UBC learning technologies, such as UBC Blogs and WeBWorK, into their courses. She also explained that the Open Strategists at CTLT act as the main point of contact for instructors looking to use open-source online learning materials.

“That person often works with faculty and students to help people think about implementing OER, to help people think about using OER or creating OER,” Hendricks said. “Even the students will sometimes create an OER in their courses, so we consult with folks on how to do those things.”

Possibility for pushback

While the push for OERs at university and government levels is becoming stronger, Hendricks and Holmes both noted that third-party materials are still regarded as useful resources by many instructors at UBC.

“Ultimately, when you look at any pushback that might happen, what we’ve said is we understand people value these third-party resources, and they can prove to actually be a very effective pedagogical resource,” said Holmes.

“But also we want to make sure that these resources are available to everyone, that everyone can afford that resource [and] that it doesn’t make education more costly for students at the university.”

The Senate document outlining the principles also highlights the importance of increasing agency in student choices when accessing course content.

“When the use of digital materials, which can only be accessed uniquely by each specific student, are required for course marks, this agency for how to access the course materials is removed,” reads the document.

Hendricks said she hoped faculty members would see the value behind the principles, including increasing affordability, access to education and student agency in purchasing learning materials.

“If you can’t afford the homework tool, then you might lose out on that percentage of your course mark. So we want to have more equity and access to success in the courses,” she said.

Hendricks added that the principles would help promote faculty agency in choosing course materials as well.

“If we do have more of those open tools, faculty will have more agency to shape what those platforms and tools look like, what questions are asked, and how they are run ... because through the course there’s the ability to change them,” she said.