Paying to Turn in Homework? ASU Prof’s Viral Email Raises Questions...

Higher Education

Paying to Turn in Homework? ASU Prof’s Viral Email Raises Questions About Online Textbook Model

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 25, 2019

Paying to Turn in Homework? ASU Prof’s Viral Email Raises Questions About Online Textbook Model
As a professor's protest against requiring a digital homework system went viral, memes and t-shirt designs spread too.

Late last week, an economics professor at Arizona State University sent an email to students that quickly went viral arguing that he is being dismissed from the university because he refused to assign an online textbook that he says “requires students to pay just to turn in homework.”

That charge, by Brian Goegan, clearly struck a nerve with students around the country, leading to memes on social media portraying the professor as a hero fighting corrupt university officials, as well as t-shirts with the slogan: “my homework was more expensive than this t-shirt.”

The incident is bringing attention to a complaint that has sprung up at other campuses in the last couple of years. As textbook giants shift to all-digital products that integrate homework, students are essentially forced to buy digital materials from publishers to turn in their assignments.

That’s a stark departure from the age-old textbook model, which gave students the option of buying a used copy, renting a book or borrowing one if they didn’t want to fork over the money for a new one. That raises the question: is the move to digital homework systems creating a new kind of digital divide at colleges?

Textbook companies defend their new model, arguing that digital titles help students learn better than past methods and are sold for far less than traditional textbooks. And they are encouraging colleges to buy the new digital textbooks in bulk and to charge students a fee to cover that cost, so students no longer have to decide which version of a textbook to buy.

Still many students resist the change, arguing that they can look up what they need on the internet without a textbook at all.

What’s Going on at ASU?

Goegan has been teaching economics classes at ASU as a full-time, non-tenured lecturer since 2014, but the university did not renew his contract, and he finished up his teaching duties this month.

Last Thursday, he sent an email to students explaining that he was being let go because he pushed back against two university policies that he saw as unethical. The first was that students in all Econ 211 and 212 were now required to purchase a digital textbook called MindTap, sold by Cengage. He alleged that the university was requiring so many students to purchase it so that the university would get a large grant from Cengage.

Goegan also argued that he was forced to fail 30 percent of his students, which he said university officials wanted so that an adaptive-learning project being developed for other sections of the economics course would be made to look good by comparison.

The university called the professor a liar, and pushed back against his accusations with their own statement that was posted on Reddit, the site where the professor’s email had spread. And the university says it has gotten no grant from Cengage, and that it makes no money from the homework system.

They said that the economics department had decided to adopt a popular Principles of Microeconomics textbook by Gregory Mankiw and to also require students to buy access to a related MindTap digital tool for homework and other interactive materials. ASU is huge—it has more than 13,000 students each year enrolled in either Econ 211 or 212—so the university negotiated a bulk discount for its students to purchase both the textbook and the MindTap extra for $93. On Amazon, the book alone sells for $148 without the MindTap software.

The university’s statement paints Goegan as the villian, arguing that he refused to make much use of the tool that his department had agreed that every student taking that course should go through.

They also say that “ASU never requires a professor to fail a certain percentage of students,” and that Goegan was inflating grades in his courses by consistently awarding “a huge percentage of A and B grades” compared to everyone else teaching the same courses.

On social media, many former students of Goegan came to his defense and said he was one of the best professors they have had at ASU.

One of those students is Addison Wright, a junior at ASU who took Goegan’s course in the spring of 2016.

She says several of her courses at the university have required her to purchase access codes to digital course materials to turn in homework, but these have not been worth the cost. She praises the email Goegan sent this week and the protest he is making. “I can’t believe someone finally spoke out about it,” says Wright. “I look up a lot of things I need to know, and it’s right there on Google for free, or you can find videos on how to do it. I’m so tired of spending just pointless money.”

Goegan did not respond to requests to comment for this article, but he told Inside Higher Ed that he believed that even with the university’s discount, the cost of MindTap and the book are not worth it. "I know that relatively speaking it seems low for a textbook, but for that price you can buy just about any book in the world," he is quoted as saying. "I would joke with my students that they could buy all the Harry Potter books for that price and learn more from those than from the textbook."

Bret Hovell, a spokesman for the university, says that the majority of the professors in the economics department felt the new tools were an advance that did more than just let students turn in answers that could have been submitted by email or the learning-management system. And with so many students taking these introductory courses, he adds that it is important that they “make sure that everyone is having to do the same stuff” so they are ready for the courses that require Econ 211 or 212 as a prerequisite.

Other professors in the economics department declined to answer questions for this article.

Students Seek Workarounds

Some students have sought ways around buying digital homework systems.

For Wright, the student at ASU, one solution has been to take advantage of a two-week trial period offered by many textbook companies. In an accounting course she is taking, the student says she was assigned a digital homework system and she activated the two-week trial just before the course started. Even though she didn’t read the related text, she says she used the internet to learn the material and churned through the entire semester’s worth of homework before the two weeks were up, so she didn’t have to pay the fee. “And I have an A in the class,” she adds.

A few years ago, a BuzzFeed News article featured students at other universities angry that they had to pay to turn in homework. One student interviewed said the $100 fee for a homework system was more than she could afford when the semester started, so she just skipped assignments and was forced to take zeros for homework until she could afford to pay. “I managed to pull everything back up. But as a scared freshman looking at their grades, it’s not fun,” the student said.

What Textbook Publishers Say

Textbook publishers say these digital homework systems are here to stay—in fact they hope they are the future.

“The days of the $300 textbook are over,” says NIk Osborne, a senior vice president of strategy and business operation for Pearson, who says the future is lower-cost digital tools where content is bundled in. “The good story on this is that prices are coming down on our learning materials,” he says.

He argues that it is unfair to refer to these new online products as just a way to turn in homework. “This isn’t about scanning some PDFs and calling it a day, these are immersive digital products,” he says.

As to the complaints from students, Osborne says that Pearson believes the best answer is for colleges to charge course fees that cover the cost of providing every student a text on the first day of class. The publisher calls its bulk discounts to colleges the “Inclusive Access program,” and it boasts on a Web site that it is saving students money.

“We understand that the course materials model has been broken for a long time,” says Osborne.

Fernando Bleichmar, general manager of higher education and skills for Cengage, says that his company is arguing for a similar bulk-pricing approach.

He says students cramming a semester’s worth of homework during the two-week trial period is “a very small use case,” and that “I think if a student does that the question is should the student be in the class? Maybe they could place out?”

“The reason we offer a trial period is we want to make sure that students actually need the product, and we don’t charge them for something they don’t need. And if students are on financial aid, sometimes financial aid doesn’t come in time for classes to start.”

Bleichmar also points to a subscription model the company developed that offers full access to all of its digital texts for $120 a semester to help make their offerings more affordable to students. “We put the student at the center of what we do, and affordability is clearly a critical issue,” he says.

As to the controversy at ASU, he stressed that homework is just one aspect of the MindTap tool. “The faculty is using it to help the student learn.”

The Bigger Picture

For publishers, moving to bulk sales to colleges clearly has many business advantages, in that it potentially eliminates the used-book market and would likely lead to more sales.

For professors, one benefit of using digital homework systems is that it can save them time in grading, and it also gives professors analytics on how much each student has accessed and for how long. As the Cengage marketing material for the MindTap course for Principles of Microeconomics says, “as an instructor using MindTap, your students are seeing exactly what you want them to see when you want them to see it and doing what you want them to do when you want them to do it,” and adds that it lets professors “stay connected and informed in your course through real-time student tracking and analytics that provides the opportunity to adjust the course as needed based on analytics of interactivity in the course.”

On his website, Goegan posted a new response this week saying that his main argument is that students shouldn’t be forced to pay for these tools. He acknowledged that MindTap has resources that some students might benefit from, but that he didn’t think they should be made mandatory to get access to the course.

Epilogue (update added 4/26)

The situation at ASU became more muddled this week, when student government leaders unearthed a revenue-sharing deal between the university and Cengage to jointly build a different MindTap product for economics. That isn't the same tool that Goegan was being asked to assign, but it does represent a business relationship between the university and the publisher.

Hovell, the university spokesman, said that the contract simply lays out a way for the university to get reimbursed for its intellectual property if the company started to make money on the tool, which uses more advanced adaptive learning than the homework system, but he says in reality Cengage has decided not to sell that product to others and so the university is not expected to profit from it.

The student government passed a resolution this week calling for the university to mount an independent investigation into the homework system and grading in the economics department. It asks for the university to respond to its request by no later than noon on May 4.

Update, 5/1/2019: The university announced that it will start an independent investigation of the situation and make the results public.

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