Wednesday, September 12, 2012

 

You Make the Call!

Colleges have an alarming number of moving parts.  

This week I discovered that some advisors on campus have been encouraging students to sign up for online sections of certain classes with the understanding that if they decide they don’t like the online format, they can switch to onsite versions during the add/drop period.  It’s a way to stick a toe in the water.  At that level, the idea makes sense.  (It assumes an endless supply of onsite seats available, but that’s another issue.)  So a student who signs up for, say, Psych 101 online, and who realizes early that the format just isn’t right for him, can switch to an onsite section of the same course if he moves quickly enough.

At the same time, publishers are bundling online access codes with textbooks, and selling the pair (code and textbook) less expensively than selling each separately.  From the publisher’s perspective, it’s a way to short-circuit the used book market, from which publishers make nothing.  From the bookstore’s perspective, it’s a way to save some money for online students; since they need both the code and the book anyway, the discount for bundling seems like a humane gesture.  From the perspective of the successful online student, the bundle is a convenience and a moneysaver, at least until she can’t sell the book back.

But for the student who tries the online class and then wants to switch to onsite, there’s no refund for used access codes.  Check out the course briefly, and that money is spent.  To the extent that access code bundling has defeated the used book market, even the book may not be returnable.  Most courses here don’t have common textbooks across sections, so if Professor Smith’s online class assigned “Intro to Psychology” by B.F. Deal with an accompanying access code, but Professor Jones’ onsite class assigned “Psychology and You” by G.D. Busybody, then the student is out the cost of both books.

And that’s without even considering ebooks and how the used market doesn’t work with those.  

Any single one of the decisions outlined above makes sense in a vacuum.  Shouldn’t every professor be allowed to choose the text she considers most effective?  Shouldn’t the publishers be allowed to bundle their products as they see fit?  Shouldn’t students be able to comparison shop sections and formats?  

Individually, it’s possible to defend each of those.  But together, the picture becomes crazy.

In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma of administration.  Say to anyone in that chain of circumstances that they have to do something differently, and they’ll wonder why you’re being so mean.  Forcing a common textbook comes across as stifling academic freedom; forcing ‘unbundling’ saddles committed students with higher costs; forcing students to stay in a format that obviously isn’t working for them is setting them up to fail.  What is the administration up to?  

As a kid, I used to watch “This Week in Baseball,” a highlight show.  Once in each episode, they’d have a feature called “You Make the Call,” in which they showed a complicated play from the previous week and asked the viewer what call the umpire should have made.  (Anyone familiar with the infield fly rule knows how complicated things can get.)  After the commercial break, they’d

In the spirit of the late Mel Allen, I’ll channel “You Make the Call” here.  Wise and worldly readers, what’s the fairest and most reasonable way to cut through this dilemma without violating academic freedom, the rights of students to make choices, and the need for the bookstore to remain solvent?  You make the call!

Comments:
Like you said, don't violate the rights of students to make choices. But that doesn't mean choices don't have consequences. Just because you let them switch courses, doesn't mean that change is costless. If they want to switch, they have to pay extra for a new access code and book.
(Also, students who think they are going to switch might try getting away without using the access code until they know. You can usually return unused access codes.)
 
In my department, the textbooks are chosen by committee and standardized among the different sections of the same course. This is helpful for students who want to retake classes or switch sections: the textbook is usually still good (except for the unfortunate semester when we adopt a new book), and the online access code is usually still valid (the publishers we've worked with either offer lifetime access or two semesters' worth). And while it would be nice to choose my own book, I think using the same book across all sections helps make sure we're all teaching at the same level and using similar notation. This wasn't the case at the previous institution I worked at, and we had one guy who was teaching things so unusually that even the other faculty members who tutored students were confused.
 
I teach online, hybrid, and traditional courses. The only time when access codes become an issue in the way you describe is when the online content is created by the book publisher. It was the case for a while, that the publishers were basically running a parallel CMS to the one the University provides, and that publisher content was accessible only through that publisher's CMS. That meant that students had to purchase an access code to get the publisher's stuff.

I've noticed a couple of the larger publishers in my field are moving to a system where the content can be integrated directly into my University-provided course shell. Since my course shell is open to all students in the class, it should be possible for a student to enroll, check out the basic outlines of the course, and drop if they choose to, without ever having to access any of the publisher's proprietary content on the publisher's system.

Frankly, much of the online content that publishers provide (at least in my field) is lousy. I don't use it because I can come up with something better pretty easily, for free. Just like I never use the publisher's test banks, either. Trained manatees could write better test questions. And although I have had some colleagues who simply adopt the publisher's material lock, stock, and barrel, my opinion is that this is a lazy approach to designing an online course, and people who do that probably shouldn't be teaching online, anyway. (though I realize, DD, that you can't say that without causing other problems - but maybe some of your faculty can say it for you.)

That, and your college's advisers need to be trained so that they understand and communicate the possible consequences of the advice they're giving. Students lack the background info to realize this could be an issue, which is why we provide them with "advice" from advisers in the first place. Would be better, if the advice were helpful and clear. Then students can be responsible for making whatever choice they make, and you no longer have a problem to try to solve.
 
Honestly, textbooks are such a huge rip-off to begin with that it seems kind of silly to worry about this one sub-set of purchases. Publishers argue that high prices support new editions. And there's a new edition every year. But as students, we can clearly see from observing our classmates who walk in with last year's text they borrowed from a friend (the bookstore would never have sold it) that the only difference is they've moved the chapters around. There's no reason on earth that any book should cost $250.00, unless it's printed in gold leaf.
 
I was thinking along the same lines as Anon 2:12: the issue here isn't the textbooks, but the access codes, which mean that the course exercises, exams, etc., are probably in whole or in large part being created not by the faculty member who is supposedly teaching the course, but by a publisher. From my perspective (humanities, teaching mostly skill-focused -- writing -- courses) that sounds like a dereliction of duty on the teacher's part; (s)he has essentially subcontracted out much of the work of creating a course (and perhaps even a significant portion of the grading), and is making the students pay the subcontractor. It may look different from the perspective of a psych professor (who might wonder what I'm doing all day since I don't have labs to run). But the underlying issue still needs to be addressed: what, exactly, is the instructor of record for each of these courses doing him/herself, what has (s)he decided to subcontract out to another entity, and, even if the other entity is, in fact, producing a worthwhile product, should the students be the ones paying for the creation and perhaps the scoring, of exercises, activities, tests, etc. beyond those already provided in the textbook? My vote (coming, once again, from a humanities perspective) would be "no," that if the instructor and/or department decides that a publisher's course package is superior to what they could produce, and would traditionally have produced, in-house, then they, not the students should pay for those materials.
 
"if the instructor and/or department decides that a publisher's course package is superior to what they could produce, and would traditionally have produced, in-house, then they, not the students should pay for those materials."

The same argument from tradition could be made for books. If the lecturer is no longer going to read the book to the students, as they once did, then the university should pay for the books.
 
@M: well, they do, to some extent. It's called a library. One significant difference, that occurred sometime in between the long-ago time you name and the current time, is the advent of textbooks, which are watered-down and/or synthesized versions of the actual scholarly texts the lecturers used to read. Primary texts are still fairly cheap, and the main argument for students owning their own is so they can write on them. I'm not sure exactly what from the pre-textbook era textbooks are analogous to. But I think most college professors would agree that a professor who teaches entirely by working hir way through the textbook isn't providing a lot of value to hir students.
 
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