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I have a friend whose has a professor who is forcing students to sign up for a website (that requires them to pay a monthly subscription fee) where they will be posting lectures, notes, assignments, etc. The professor did not inform them of this until a few days before the first class would be starting, meaning students who could not afford to pay it right away essentially couldn't attend class on the first day. We've had departments use different websites before, but this is the first time I'm hearing about someone using one that students have to pay out of pocket for. From what I know it functions the same way as Blackboard, but it isn't covered by the school. They are also expected to pay a lab fee and buy the textbook so it just seems like overkill, but I don't know if it's something that can be brought up as an issue to higher ups.

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    This seems to be a legal question, not appropriate here. But universities fairly often require specific software products, such as MS Word and such for submitting work. The answer might depend on local law and practice. Complaining is possible, of course.
    – Buffy
    Feb 1 at 15:51
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    Which country? It is common to pay for textbooks if the library does not have them, but this is the first time I hear about obligatory subscriptions. Feb 1 at 16:55
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    It is common at my institution for there to be "lab fees" for various online services (e.g. a polling response site), but these are strictly regulated by the university. The particular example you give sounds questionable, but I don't know exactly who you would ask/complain to at your university.
    – Ben Bolker
    Feb 1 at 17:59
  • When I attended university we paid for the costs of copying the course materials (often entire books created by the faculty but not publicly published). I can imagine that this is the modern equivalent.
    – Louic
    Feb 2 at 8:53
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    What is the website used? Feb 2 at 12:14
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This started as a comment but I decided to give an opposing view from the one in Anonymus Physicist's answer.

As you might have guessed, the answer to this question is location dependant.

In my University in the UK, this is explicitly forbidden. It is, in fact, forbidden to ask students to register to any website or service in order to follow the course materials, even if the registration is free. There is a (fairly short) list of approved services, for which the University has ensured that they follow the (now local, but still based on GDPR) Privacy Laws, which students may be asked to use. This list is updated yearly, and I believe the process is substantially more complex than sending somebody an email saying "I want to use X in my classes next year".

As this is done to ensure compliance with Privacy Laws, I am fairly certain that all British Universities have the same clause. As the current Privacy Laws are still based on GDPR, originally passed as European Union legislation, I would guess that something similar is in effect through EU Universities as well.

(However, note that since UK Universities are ran much more like companies than public education institutions, as is common on the Continent, they are also much much more careful about any legal liability their actions might cause. So it might be less enforced outside of the UK.)

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  • The question was about payment, not privacy. It is conceivable, though unlikely, that the payment is required but personal information is not. Feb 2 at 21:04
  • However, the question also explicitly said "sign up". Any service that requires you to sign up -- even if you get to chose your own username and don't really have to provide any specific info to sign up -- would fall under this. It is forbidden to ask students to use any website that would require them to sign up or register. I am not sure if asking for payment is "even more forbidden" as they do not usually try to further regulate something that is already forbidden.
    – penelope
    Feb 3 at 9:31
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Talk to the student ombudsman about making a formal complaint.

You're paying for 13-ish weeks of education. If the professor's actions made it impossible for a large chunk of your class to receive the first week's lessons, I think that would be something that you would be justified complaining about to the relevant university authorities. Additionally, something like this would cause equity concerns, since a monthly subscription would cause more financial harm to some students than others, especially right now with the effects that Covid is having on the economy.

As a result, I would recommend that you talk to the student ombudsman at your university about making a formal complaint, and ask them what the proper process for it might be.

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  • You might want to specify a country, as otherwise paying for 13 weeks of education does not really make sense.
    – Tommi
    Feb 3 at 10:06
  • @Tommi In my experience, in Australia, a semester is typically about 13 weeks long. Is that different overseas?
    – nick012000
    Feb 3 at 10:07
  • The paying part at least is country-dependent.
    – Tommi
    Feb 3 at 10:08
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To provide a concrete example of what might/might not be allowed, here are the [abridged] rules governing "digital learning resources" at my university (Ontario, Canada). The reference to "Ministry Guidelines" suggests that they would be similar across the province. Most of the rules below seem fair and sensible to me ... it wouldn't necessarily rule out the situation you described, unless the web site fees were too expensive/unaffordable (I've emphasized relevant bits below).

In line with the Ministry Guidelines, [the University] permits the following:

  • Instructors may require students to purchase:
    • Access to DLR [digital learning resources] including e-textbooks, simulations, assessments, remote response devices and software for the duration of the course; ...
  • Instructors may require the use of DLR materials in the same fashion as they would use a printed textbook (i.e. as content that can be the source of assignments and assessments that are evaluated directly by instructors and their TAs. No more than 20 percent of a course grade may be from purchased DLR assessment tools (i.e. assignments assessed not by the instructor, but by the DLR itself), unless written approval is first obtained from the appropriate Associate Dean of the Faculty.
  • Instructors should endeavor to keep the costs of DLR and devices at a level that students can reasonably afford. DLR costs should not exceed the total costs normally associated with non-DLR learning materials (i.e. printed textbooks) for a particular course. If DLR materials are in addition to printed learning materials for a course, they should not amount to more than an additional 10% of learning materials costs.
  • In situations where acquiring the DLR and/or device would cause undue hardship, instructors should provide students with an alternative assessment method or a more affordable option.
  • Instructors must notify students if digital assessment is required or optional on their syllabus or course outline and/or on their course website before classes begin. There must be a clear outline of the percentage of the total course grade that relates to the use of DLR-specific assessments.
  • Faculty departments should maintain a record of all required and optional DLR used by instructors.
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This is typically permitted or at least not forbidden.

It is much more common that you pay in one payment at the start of the course, as opposed to monthly, but it's essentially the same as a textbook rental, which is common and often digital.

If you think the price is too high, you can certainly complain.

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    Could you please explicitly mention a location in your answer? As it stands right now, it is incorrect, as I know for a fact this is explicitly forbidden in the UK.
    – penelope
    Feb 2 at 15:26
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    "typically permitted" - never saw anything like that. Can you elaborate the jurisdiction? Feb 2 at 15:46
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    I think it’s only “typically permitted” if it is an official university policy and the website students are asked to register and pay subscription for is officially sanctioned (usually by the department). For a professor to make such decisions as their own private initiative is most definitely not “typically permitted” anywhere that I’m familiar with. As I explained in another answer, the powers of professors to impose arbitrary rules of their own invention on their classes is more limited than many people seem to realize.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 2 at 16:39
  • @penelope Multiple locations. Feb 2 at 21:01

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