Beyond textbook pricing, conversation about affordability expands to online assessment materials

As textbook pricing is already a well-established affordability issue for students, the conversation is now being expanded to include the cost of online assessment materials.

Using data from the AMS Academic Experience Survey (AES) and other research, the topic was first brought to the May Vancouver Senate meeting by AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Max Holmes and Dr. Simon Bates, academic director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT).

“The presentation was a topic of broad academic interest so we weren’t asking Senate for anything — we were bringing a topic to them that required, or was worthy of, further discussion,” said Bates.

“I think it was important that it came forward … as a joint presentation between us and the AMS because the students and the university have to be partners in this, rather than adversaries.”

The use of online assessment materials seems to be widespread at UBC. According to the 2018 AMS AES, 75 per cent of participants said they have been assessed through “online portals that require paid access codes” — with 41 per cent saying that they have had to use them “frequently” or “often.”

Currently, their average cost is determined to be around $150 across different year levels, and they tend to be most of the price when bundled with textbooks. Altogether, the 2018 AES found that 44 per cent of the undergraduate respondents spent $500 or more on textbooks and other course materials.

“First year science, BIOL 112, PHYS 101, PHYS 118, and CHEM 111, all required me to buy a homework access code that either came with a textbook or an ebook,” Reddit user proudboltzmannbrain commented, “but the codes were the bulk of the cost so it didn’t save you very much money to just get the code and the ebook.”

[''] 2018 AMS Academic Experience Survey

In response, the presentation suggested four main mitigation principles for discussion. They include providing students with the full costs before registration, unbundling textbooks and online assessment materials, making affordable options available and limiting their costs.

Along with the last principle, there is discussion about making online assessment materials be included with the costs of tuition.

“[It’s] not acceptable for students to pay tuition, but on top of that having to pay extra to just take a quiz in their course,” Holmes said. “That should be part of tuition.”

This stance is also taken by the Alberta government. Meanwhile, the University of Toronto capped the price of additional online assessment to $60 per three-credit course, or a free alternative had to be offered as well.

Bates, however, described Alberta’s model as “overly restrictive.” He thinks that UBC would “probably land” closer to the Ontario approach, which focuses more on adopting open education resources (OERs) and improving support for faculty to “find, create and sustain [OERs].”

This framework itself does not seem like it would be difficult to apply onto UBC, as 86 per cent of the 2018 AES respondents said they have used OERs “in lieu of a textbook” before.

[''] 2018 AMS Academic Experience Survey

He also noted that it is ultimately up to faculty members to decide how they want to incorporate digital learning materials, textbooks and OERs into their courses. He observed that while some are enthusiastic adopters of OERs, others also pointed out the quality of online assessment materials.

“We’ve had some feedback from faculty who say ‘Look I get it, I understand the pressures for students, but the fact is some of these materials are really, really good … and they provide tools and feedback and activities that are better than I could produce and just distribute through Canvas,” Bates said.

Some students also shared this observation.

“I did use all of them as they were helpful for practical applications of the theory learnt in class, as pre-reading checks, and because they were included as a part of our final marks,” commented Reddit user _imnotfamous_.

Holmes acknowledged the quality of some online assessment materials, but also stressed the importance of affordability for students.

“Students need to be able to afford their education,” he said.

“We’re not saying the elimination of all textbooks now ... it’s a transition, but we’re hopeful … there’s been a direction from UBC to move away from textbooks and to move away from paid portals with access codes in favour of more open resources.”

Moving forward

For the AMS and CTLT, the advocacy process has just started.

Holmes said that the society is looking to include digital learning materials in the 2018/19 #textbookbrokeBC campaign, an outreach campaign that has so far focused on unaffordable textbook pricing. Tracking how students use or don’t use those resources through the AES would also be an important part of the advocacy on how to make the resources more affordable or how to develop alternative materials, according to Bates.

They will also take the feedback from the Senate presentation and work out how to turn it into either guidelines or concrete policies. At the same time, discussions within Senate and consultation with faculty members will be used to inform the AMS’s advocacy to the provincial government.

“[Online assessment materials] will be a large topic of discussion going forward into next year,” Holmes said.