e-Textbooks, e-Learning, and Academic Inequality

Before getting into my invective against required e-Textbooks and e-Learning platforms, let me set the stage for my perspective. I’m about to teach a university-level introductory French course. Being an adjunct who was hired to fill the need for an additional section of this class (super exciting to see growth in a language department!), I don’t have much say as to what goes on in terms of curriculum for this course. I have essentially no democratic stake in the operation of this department, or therefore the class; my textbook has been prescribed, as well as the blended-learning format of the course. I do have some educational freedom when it comes to assignments and the order in which we cover the material in the textbook.

These course sections should have some sort of uniformity in order to ensure that students proceed to the second semester of introductory French having covered more or less the same content, and so my gripe here is less about my place at the bottom of the departmental hierarchy (n.b.: I have no ill-will towards my colleagues) and more about the impact of certain prescribed curricular decisions on my students. Namely, this 4-credit course consists of three hours of face-to-face lecture (split to meet twice each week), plus one hour weekly of asynchronous online recitation through the textbook publisher’s e-learning portal. Noteworthy advantages of this format include:

  • An easily-accessible repertoire of varied activities targeting specific language learning goals (including listening activities featuring native speakers!)
  • Digitization of assignments (and thus near-instant distribution of materials)
  • Automatic grading of assignments
  • Automatic pairing of students for paired/group activities
  • Instant feedback for students on their language learning

These benefits cannot be downplayed; they facilitate instruction by taking away much of the burden typically placed solely on the educator. These are massive time savers, turning a textbook into an interactive plug-and-play platform that can be accessed readily with an internet connection. E-textbooks and their proprietary e-learning platforms provide very valuable services for the course instructor.

But we have placed the cost burden entirely on the students, when it should be covered by the institution. Humanities disciplines like foreign language study have often been called “gentleman’s pursuits”, i.e. accessible only to those of a privileged class with the financial means to support themselves (historically on the backs of their society’s subjugated underclass–looking at you, Greek philosophers, whose time spent musing about the world was only made possible through your society’s foundation of slave labor). While e-learning platforms are certainly not unique to Humanities (see MyMathLab), their usage raises further financial barriers to entry by requiring students, in the same historical vein, to have the means of financing their education (but we’ll shelve the discussion about unequal access to credit/student loans in America).

Compare the following costs for the various versions of this required resource:

VersionCost for student (USD)
Physical textbook, new
+ 24-month e-learning license
Physical textbook, used (same edition)
(no e-learning access)
$70 (Amazon)
E-textbook (no time limit or DRM)Not available from publisher
E-textbook (4-month rental)
(no e-learning access)
E-learning licence (4-month)
(comes with e-book rental)

By designing the course with a blended curriculum, where students must use the publisher’s proprietary, costly, non-libre software at their own cost, we have restricted access to our courses to those who can afford the subscription fees. Here’s a few reasons why the above pricing scheme is terrible to impose upon our students:

  • There is no unrestricted e-book copy for purchase. Students who want to save paper by buying digital have no legal way of keeping their e-book purchase. This means that:
  • Without buying the physical book, they have no access to the information when their rental period is over. This contributes to students seeing textbooks as limited-use consumables rather than useful reference materials. This prohibits autodidacts from using the resource outside the scope of the class once the course has ended.
  • Without internet access, the electronic materials are entirely inaccessible. The online learning platform is how the students can access their electronic textbook, which restricts them to using these resources only with an internet connection.
  • Students of fewer means will have to opt for the cheaper option: semester-long subscription. Students who can healthily fund their education have the opportunity to purchase the physical textbook along with a subscription to the online platform, in order to avoid problem of inaccessibility. Before these e-learning platforms, students could buy second-hand copies of prior editions to the textbook, at a small fraction of the cost of a brand new, current edition copy.
  • Electronic subscription makes library holdings irrelevant. Before, if students couldn’t afford to buy or rent the textbook (new or used), they could still borrow it from the campus library. Now that subscription licenses are sold to individuals, students can’t share access.

Those side-effects of the publisher’s pricing model are troubling in and of themselves, but the largest ethical infraction here is the outsourcing of the direct costs of lesson planning and instruction to the students. Since the main value of the e-learning platform is in the automation of instructional tasks (creating, assigning, distributing, conducting, overseeing, and grading activities), we might as well be asking our students to pay directly for the lecture notes, or the salary of an additional instructor or teaching assistant–one without whom the students would be unable to even participate in the course.

“How is this different from asking students to purchase their own textbooks, though?”, you might ask, “Traditional textbooks make life easy for the instructor by providing materials too.” The traditional model didn’t enforce the planned obsolescence model of textbook publishers. Changes made to textbooks rarely result in complete negation of a prior edition (though sometimes they may add a chapter, some new exercises, or more modern research). Before e-learning platforms, a student could get a copy of the required course materials from the library for free, or cheaply second-hand from another student or the campus/local bookstore. Neither of these methods prevented full participation in the course, and the publisher could not enforce any restrictions on the usage of the materials–they were powerless against the second-hand market. In my own personal experience, professors would photocopy newer editions’ chapters if they wanted to include those materials in class (but, more often, were working out of their copy of the textbook, usually several editions out of date).

Universities, colleges, and K-12 schools already pay for materials for their teaching faculty. If an instructor wanted to make a worksheet, they don’t need to feed coins into the department printer, nor do students need to pay the instructor for a copy of that worksheet. To give a multiple-choice exam, we don’t pay-per-use for the Scantron machine, nor do we charge students to see their grades. But when we mandate an e-learning platform and ask students to pay their own subscription fees, we’re essentially asking them to do just that: pay for this worksheet, now pay for this Scantron sheet so I can grade your multiple-choice test faster.

Educational institutions front the costs for traditional resources: pens, paper, printers, ink, copiers, grading machines, library books. They also pay for electronic access to journals and to Learning Management Systems (LMS) like BlackBoard or Google Classroom. Why can’t they also cover these e-learning subscriptions? Surely the institution can negotiate better rates for bulk license purchases. Tuition might have to go up, but the cost to each individual student would go down, as they wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket directly to restrictive publishers with oppressive pricing models (we’ll have to shelve the discussion on how textbook authors don’t get paid well by these educational publishers).

“Why should my tuition go up just to subsidize someone who can’t afford to spend money on course materials for a degree?”, a disaffected, cynical, individualist might ask. All students’ tuition and fees go towards resources which they may not take advantage of, whether it’s the library, computer labs, free printing, campus buses/shuttles, Wi-Fi, free parking lots, bike racks, free tutors in the writing center, the salaries of professors in other departments, maintaining labs, sports programs, recreational facilities, or dining halls. These services and facilities improve the quality of life and learning for all students, staff, and faculty at these institutions. Everyone benefits from access to this wealth of resources.

We adopt these e-learning platforms to make our lives as instructors easier, but we do so at greater direct cost to our students, potentially preventing participation in the educational process. The least we can do is ensure that our institutions are footing the bill so we’re not pricing out those who can’t afford the shakedown.

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