ASU Agrees to Independent Investigation of Its Online Textbook Practices

Higher Education

ASU Agrees to Independent Investigation of Its Online Textbook Practices

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 1, 2019

ASU Agrees to Independent Investigation of Its Online Textbook Practices

Arizona State University agreed this week to mount an independent investigation of a professor’s allegations that students were forced to pay for unneeded software so that they could turn in their homework in hopes of getting a grant from the textbook publisher. The instructor also charged school officials with forcing faculty to fail a set percentage of students.

It all started about two weeks ago when a professor in the economics department, Brian Goegan, sent an email to students saying he was being forced out because he complained that the economics department was engaging in what he believed to be unethical behavior.

He alleged that the university was requiring students in many microeconomics courses to buy a digital homework tool called MindTap so that the university would get for a grant from Cengage, the textbook company that makes it. And he said he and other professors were told to fail at least 30 percent of students, a move that would set a baseline against which to measure a separate adaptive-learning experiment championed by the provost, Mark Searle.

University officials have strongly denied these claims, saying there was no grant from the textbook company, and that in fact the university had negotiated a discounted price for one of the MindTap products. And it said no professor was asked to fail students.

Goegan’s email went viral and led many students across the country to hail him as a hero on social media. The university pushed back with a long statement from the provost painting Goegan as the one at fault for being too lenient with students by giving “a huge percentage of A and B grades.”

Student government leaders then obtained a contract between ASU and Cengage detailing how the two would share revenue for a jointly developed adaptive learning tool for introductory economics. The agreement, forged in 2016 and signed by ASU’s provost, outlines the terms for developing a version of MindTap for a microeconomics course where the university would supply content using the publisher’s digital platform. According to the contract, the university gets a small percentage of sales of the adaptive learning tool to students on campus and a greater percentage of sales if the tool ends up being sold to students on other campuses.

A university spokesperson said that the contract simply lays out a way for the university to get reimbursed for its intellectual property if the company sold this product that was jointly built with ASU. But he stated that Cengage has decided not to sell that product to others and so the university is not expected to profit from it.

As questions mounted, the student government passed a resolution last week calling on the university to start an independent investigation.

On Tuesday, the university’s provost, Mark Searle, wrote a letter to the student government saying it would conduct the review, and that it had hired Ruth McGregor, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Arizona, to lead the investigation.

“While I feel strongly that each allegation is false, I agree with your view that there is a need for a third party to review the facts in question in a deliberative and thoughtful manner,” Searle wrote.

In the provost’s letter to McGregor outlining the scope of the investigation, he has asked her to report her findings by May 17, and said the findings will be made public.

Meanwhile, Cengage is in the news this week for agreeing to merge with another textbook giant, McGraw-Hill. The combined companies would form the second largest textbook publisher, behind Pearson.

 

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