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!