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I am taking a course in a may-not-be-top-but-still-decent university located in North America. The course lecturer forces us to pay for an online learning kit from Pearson by adopting all the graded quizzes provided in that learning kit.

That is, if one refuses to pay for the learning kit, he or she will have no access to all the quizzes, which in total constitute 20% of the final grade of that course. Moreover, all the text completion questions are basically exactly the same sentences copied from the eBook. Therefore, if you simply pay for the learning kit (~$50), then you will have a hard time doing the quiz as compared of those who buy the combo including the eBook (~$90).

In summary, if

  • you pay ~$90, during every quiz, simply do CTRL+F, you can always find the exact sentence in the eBook, and hence you can get nearly full marks.
  • you pay ~$50, you can access the quizzes, but you may have to search somewhere else and spend more time on the quizzes.
  • If you pay nothing, the 20% marks are gone.

I, as a victim who unwillingly paid $90, find it irritating and unethical, as I feel this is some sort of a coalition between the lecturer and the publisher. I understand that some lecturers do have recommended textbooks as well, but they are not mandatory! That is, if I can learn that course well by other books, I am free to do that. If I didn't buy the book and hence screwed the course up, that is my own responsibility. I cannot blame any one for that. But this lecturer's deed actually bans the students who do not pay for the learning kit from the quizzes.

Is this ethical? Wait, is it even legal? How may I fight for our rights as students on this issue?

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Yes, it is unethical for students to pay $40 to get answers to the online quizzes. So don't do that. –  JeffE Mar 15 at 20:13
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@KateGregory No, it is different. In your case, I can go to the library to fetch the book or even borrow it from someone else. I can still finish the questions and submit my quiz. In my case, if I do not pay for the access, my university account has no access to the quiz at all, leading to a big fat zero for the quiz. Even if I manage to "borrow" someone's account and get the questions, I cannot submit my answers for myself through my account! –  Farticle Pilter Mar 15 at 20:33
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Farticle Pilter's last comment makes a valid point, it seems to me. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 15 at 20:58
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There are two issues here: is it considered ethical and should it be? My impression is that it is not widely considered problematic, but Farticle Pilter makes a reasonable case that perhaps it should be. –  Anonymous Mathematician Mar 15 at 21:19
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@JeffE the fact that the textbook is interactive is not irrelevant at all. Physical textbooks can be shared and resold. Paying one semester's depreciation on a $90 textbook (which can be minimised by being careful with the book) is a very different proposition to paying $90 to 'rent' an online resource for one semester. There is also a big difference in how one perceives the publishers pricing strategy - an online resource has essentially no marginal cost, so there is a lot more incentive for the publisher to act anti-competitively. –  jwg Mar 17 at 9:02

7 Answers 7

up vote 35 down vote accepted

I'll start with

How may I fight for our rights as students on this issue?

For one, politely express your displeasure to the professor.

Some professors aren't in tune with the cost of textbooks, and may not realize what a burden it is to shell out $90 for their course, when it's $90 that you can't recoup by selling back the text, or avoid by using the library's copy of the text.

They may even think they're doing you a favor by offering this "interactive" system, not realizing that you don't find it useful.

If the professor isn't interested in hearing what you have to say, you can further express your displeasure in the end-of-course evaluation (my university's specifically ask about the textbook) and possibly in a respectful letter (signed by your classmates) to the department chair.

Is this ethical? Wait, is it even legal?

As the other answers have pointed out, it's not universally considered unethical or illegal.

As unpleasant as the result is in this case, it probably would not be a good thing to set too many bureaucratic rules on what textbook or other educational resources a professor can assign. Given that the cost of tuition is usually many times higher than the textbook price, it is generally desirable for the professor to assign the textbook that will (in his/her opinion) offer you the best educational experience and therefore, the best return on your tuition investment.

Of course, students tend to appreciate when the professor can find a low-cost option that is also educationally sound. But that's generally considered a bonus, not a requirement.

In this case it sounds like the extra content doesn't contribute anything useful to the educational experience - in which case, you should let the professor know. (Again, politely and non-combatively.)

I also want to point out that requiring "bundled" course content that goes along with the textbook is closer to assigning a required software package (which, unlike textbooks, you can't buy used or re-sell) than assigning a textbook. I agree with you completely that it's substantially different than being asked to pay for a textbook.

For every class I've ever taken that required specialized (non-free) software, my university installed the software on my laptop for me for free (given that I was registered for the course in question). In most cases, instructors try to use free software or software that comes with a free student license, because they realize that a software purchase is different from a textbook purchase. Or they'll provide the software on lab computers that students can use during set hours.

Imagine if you had to buy a new non-refundable software package for almost every class you were enrolled in, including buying the same software multiple times for a sequence of intro classes on a subject.

Yeah, it's a waste of money, but your professors might not see that unless you point it out.

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Complaining politely to the professor is certainly reasonable advice, but I would not expect it to have any effect. Once a professor has hitched their wagon to a particular piece of courseware, their self-interest mitigates strongly against changing to something else, such as open-source courseware that doesn't cost students money to use. –  Ben Crowell Mar 16 at 19:02
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@BenCrowell I wouldn't necessarily agree, I personally have had success with this method! Some professors do actually want what's best for students, and just haven't thought through the full implications of the bundled courseware. –  ff524 Mar 16 at 19:06
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@BenCrowell also, success doesn't necessarily mean prof has to abandon the courseware - it could just mean prof agrees, "I'll also make quizzes available on paper (or in Blackboard) for students who don't want to buy the courseware" –  ff524 Mar 16 at 19:11
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@theGreenCabbage sadly, there is no foolproof way to make people care (if they don't). –  ff524 Mar 18 at 14:19
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-1 If a professor demands that you pay him $1,000 to give you a sheet of simple exercises for 20% of your grade, it's unethical. If it's $1,000 to someone else, it's unethical. If it's $100, it's also unethical. The unethical lies on obligating someone to pay something for one specific person/company in exchange of same grade. That leaves no option to the student, he can't choose alternatives. The amount and the receiving person doesn't change that. –  woliveirajr Mar 19 at 13:41

This is a situation that is in my opinion exploitative and unethical. The majority of the blame lies with the publisher, but some lies with the professor as well. On the professor's part, it's not the kind of behavior that is universally agreed to be unethical, nor is it something that anyone would consider to be extremely unethical (like giving an A in return for a sexual favor).

Here's some background. For decades, publishers have exploited the fact that they could name a price for a college textbook, and it would very little effect on sales, because the adoption decision was being made by the professor, who wasn't the person paying for the book. Over roughly the last 30 years, they have raised the price of textbooks at a rate much too high to be explainable by the combination of inflation and any rise in the costs of production. The skyrocketing price of textbooks has caused many students to find other ways of obtaining the book, and one of these is buying used copies.

Publishers hate the used market and will do anything they can to kill it off. Within about the last 5 years, they've found the magic bullet. They sell the book along with access to a web site, as described in the question. They convince professors to use the online services by appealing to their self-interest. They offer professors an extremely easy and convenient way to obtain an evaluation of their students' work, through the publisher's web site. In many cases, the professor buys in to the system, and then over the following years the price is jacked up more and more. This happened, for example, with Pearson's product Mymathlab, which now costs math students at my school $90 a semester! Professors may not be aware that there are free solutions. E.g., for people who teach math, some good free systems are Myopenmath and Webwork. For physics, there are free systems such as Lon-capa and my own software called Spotter. But the free systems do not have marketing power behind them and may be more work to set up. Therefore professors condemn their students to exploitation through the likes of Mymathlab.

Is this ethical? Wait, is it even legal? How may I fight for our rights as students on this issue?

As a student, you can work through student organizations. Here in California, the student group CalPirg has been working actively on this issue.

As a professor, I try to do my best to inform my colleagues about alternatives to proprietary textbooks and proprietary courseware.

Whether it's legal -- well, I guess that depends on where you live. I think it's legal throughout the US. In Greece, for example, all textbooks are free -- although from what I understand their system is a disaster. Here in California, our former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to get more free and open-source textbooks adopted in K-12, and a state senator named Darrell Steinberg has been trying to do the same at the college level. (Google on SB 1052 and 1053 and California Open Education Resources Council.) Schwarzenegger failed. The jury is out on Steinberg, and I'm not sure his approach is a good idea. If you wanted to get this outlawed in California, Steinberg would be the logical guy to approach.

The problem with trying to deal with this politically is that the current setup appeals strongly to the self-interest of two politically powerful groups: publishers and professors. It's against the self-interest of students, but students don't vote in sufficient numbers to be politically powerful, and they don't have the financial or political resources of the publishers or organizations like the California Teachers Association.

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"majority of the blame lies with the publisher" how can it be? So if right now I published something and put 500$ as a price for it and you force people to buy it, I am mostly to blame? And you are just a little bit responsible for it? Sounds strange. –  Salvador Dali May 10 at 2:10

In addition to the, so far, three other fine answers, are these two important points:

(1) Was the compulsory extra course fee announced up front, at the time you signed up or paid for the course? If so, you may have little recourse. On the other hand, if this "extra fee" was sprung upon you after the fact, then this could be an example of trading/bargaining in bad faith and is condemned universally.

(2) Even if the $50 fee for the basic learning kit were deemed acceptable, it appears that the students now have the option of either doing some homework themselves or paying another $40 for someone else (OK, in this case it's a something else) to do it for them. That could be seen, in a small way, as buying an educational credential, and should also be condemned universally.

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JeffE did address (2) in a comment. –  martin f Mar 16 at 21:08
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Yes, (1) is a good point. This came up recently in my school's faculty senate. The problem is that although the information actually is made available somewhere to the students, they don't know that the information exists. this could be an example of trading/bargaining in bad faith The underlying ethical issue is that students do not have any ability to bargain or make decisions about whether or not to spend this money. The seller is the publisher, the person who decides to buy is the professor, and the person who pays is the student. –  Ben Crowell Mar 16 at 22:12
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I feel that (1) is a key point. I am willing to use the word "unethical" to describe the practice of telling a student only after the fact about a hidden fee. Such fees should be announced in advance, so that students are afforded the opportunity to visit the instructor, the department chair, etc. and say "I would like to take Course X, but I am not comfortable paying mandatory fee Y. What alternative arrangements can you tell me about?" –  Pete L. Clark Mar 16 at 23:12
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@PeteL.Clark: At my school, the answer from the dean or instructor will be: so sorry, but you have to pay the $90 for Mymathlab, and we disclosed this somewhere on the college's web site. I don't see how this resolves the ethical issue. The student is over a barrel. The student needs the course and has no choice. It's no different ethically from saying that all homework must be done on special glossy fuschia-colored 6"x8" paper with rounded edges -- which costs a dollar a sheet and can only be bought from one supplier. –  Ben Crowell Mar 17 at 1:21
    
@Ben: All the instructors at your school will be unsympathetic when approached about this in advance? I don't see how you could know that. One reason for disclosing this in advance is that there are usually other sections or other courses (it is certainly not always true that the student needs that particular course) and always other schools. If a department or a university is intent on requiring students to pay these extra fees, students should go elsewhere unless they feel there is corresponding value added to offset the additional fee. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 17 at 5:43

If your university allows instructors to charge for "materials fees" for classes—such as studio art classes or laboratory classes in the sciences—then it is not, strictly speaking, unethical to insist students access a particular paid resource. However, if such fees are not permitted, then it really is not fair to ask students to pay for quizzes if it would not be required for them to do so elsewhere.

However, although it may strictly speaking be ethical, I would agree with Pete L. Clark that such practices are not desirable. Being completely beholden to someone else's syllabus and teaching materials at the university level is not a good sign, as it shows more the desire to simply get things done rather than doing things well.

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I don't buy the analysis in the first paragraph. The rules about materials fees were written a long time ago. E.g., here in California, we have rules for public schools that are enshrined in our ridiculously long ed code. The rules predate the internet and were written to apply to physical objects (test tubes, oil paints), not to services or information. In any case, ethical behavior isn't derivable from laws and regulations. –  Ben Crowell Mar 16 at 1:38

ff524's answer is absolutely great and I wholeheartedly agree with all notions present therein. There is however one approach I would like to additionally highlight: Contacting the student council. This is exactly what the student council should be able to handle. It depends on the institution how much power they hold, but in most it should be enough power to at least raise the issue at a level where the instition will listen. I would not argue that this behaviour is unethical (except if the fee was secret till after the fact, which I assume it is not), however if students have an issue with it than it's the student council who is in place to voice the opinion of the student body as a whole. (If however this is only the case with a single course it's less likely for them to pick it up, but if it's the case with one course it's likely the case with more and at least they might do a survey on the issue)

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I think it is absolutely normal and very common at universities (and elsewhere in education) that you have to buy a specific textbook for your course in order to pass the exam.

Unfortunately, this lead to the bad practice that professors force students to buy their (or their friends') textbooks. I do not think you should blame your professor personally, because it is a very common problem (at least in my environment), and I am sure you will meet this issue thousands of times in your career.

Besides the ethical problems, I think this practice is very dangerous because exams are distorted in a way that you can easily pass if you have the book. This will motivate even not-very-smart students to buy the book - and so get passed to the next semester and buy the next book as well.

I have no idea how this issue could be solved, but it is present everywhere as far as I know. You have to buy a textbook for your course, that's OK. The professor asks questions from the textbook on the exam, that's OK again. I don't see how you could get your point through in this case.

We have a similar situation in a law's school, where books are actualized each year upon some minor changes in the law. On the exams, these "new laws" are always asked in order to force students to buy the new book each year, despite that it is 99% the same as last year. It's been an issue for years, and it is a law's school where you would expect students to be able to find some legal way against this practice, but so far, they couldn't.

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The OP isn't complaining about having to buy a book, about the cost of the book, or about the professor assigning his/her own book. The OP is complaining about having to pay a large extra fee in order to have an account on a web site, which allows him/her to take online quizzes. –  Ben Crowell Mar 17 at 20:04
    
@BenCrowell: I understood the OP. Buying the online material can be considered as buying the "whole" book, or another book, or whatever. The point is that you have to buy something to learn from for the exam. The question is what and why you have to buy. –  leeladam Mar 17 at 20:50
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It's not like buying a book. In your example, it's like telling the law students to buy the book to get the material for the exam, and also requiring them to pay a separate fee to be allowed to take the exam. –  ff524 Mar 18 at 9:47
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The University has a duty to provide all books that are required in the university library in the way that is reasonable for all students to access. It is optional for a student to buy a book, a student can choose to buy books so they are able study in a location of their choosing. –  Ian Mar 18 at 10:40

So the professor is not willing to do his/her job, and instead makes the student pay money to a 3rd party for what the professor has already been paid to provide.

I expect a course to be self contained and the professor to cover everything that is needed to pass the exams. It is OK to require books to be used, only if they are provided in the university library in the way that is reasonable for all students to access.

I see this as a professor that is too lazy to set their own tests. If a student did the same, they will be expelled for copying someone else’s work.

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