Ancillary fee anxiety

AnxietyCat Ancillary
Anxiety cat is anxious about ancillary fees

I had originally planned to write (and actually wrote a draft of) a post to explore my questions and concerns about asking students to pay for access to a web-based classroom response system (WBCRS henceforth), like Lecture Tools (now integrated into Echo 360), Top Hat, or Learning Catalytics. My major concern? These tools are basically ways to teach huge classes better, to bring in the interactivity and communication aspects difficult to achieve in the large class setting – kind of a “large class tax” on students. (I’ve used Lecture Tools for several terms – see my previous posts here, here, and here.)


I’d hoped to gain some clarity,  maybe spark some conversation with colleagues about the issues relating to using a WBCRS at a cost to students. As part of my thinking, I considered some of the other ancillary items we routinely ask students to purchase (i.e., not usually included in their tuition, but required for a course). I was originally thinking that a teaching tool is really different from a required textbook, dissection kit, safety glasses, or a lab coat. Now I’m not only concerned about the ethics/fairness of asking students to purchase licenses for a WBCRS, but also requiring textbooks and disposable lab coats!

(BTW, this is very much biology/microbiology-centric. And YMMV – perhaps your school has lab budgets that cover some of the things other schools cannot or do not.)

These aren’t really new concerns. Every year I negotiate with textbook publishers to try to keep those costs as low as possible … and wonder if I should go textbook-free instead. I was initially a little dismayed to learn our biosafety requirements dicated that students purchase a disposable lab coat (not to leave the lab, destroyed at the end of the course unless the student is taking another microbiology lab course the following term), though the safety considerations (and biosafety certification) are key in this situation. I think a lot of us wrestle with these choices (where there are choices), being aware of the cost of university and financial burdens so many of our students are shouldering.

I have been trying to find some objective approach to this dilemma. If we assume that we require textbooks and other items because they have pedagogical value, there are a few other things that can be considered regarding these ancillary cost-incurring items.  Based on my courses (current, as well as past), and what I’ve seen in other courses, I’ve tried to chart out the relevant aspects for the following items: clickers (dedicated – e.g., iClicker or TurningPoint devices), dissection kit, lab coats (cloth, disposable), lab notebooks, textbooks, safety glasses, and a fee-based WBCRS. Lab manuals could be included – I make mine available online, so I’m leaving it out here. For some people, a “homework system” (like Pearson Mastering Biology) might be another item for the list.

Characteristics/aspects I’m considering include:

  • used/required for student safety
  • can be used later in other courses or work
  • can resell
  • could share with a friend (e.g., in same course but different lab sections/times)
  • considered normal professional equipment used in the field (value in being familiar with use)
  • generally expected (by students and faculty) as a normal item for the type of class
  • used primarily in class/lecture
  • used primarily in the lab

(Disclaimer: The list is not exhaustive, and mostly reflects my own course/experiences. There may well be situations that differ from what I’m showing below. I also had trouble with some of these as binary options – I could possibly make the case for a textbook as “professional equipment”, but currently am not inclined do so. There are also free, online textbooks and some free WBCRS, which may meet the needs of some instructors; some text publishers may be able to provide reduced prices for clickers or WBCRS with purchase of a new text.)

Item Safety Use later Resell Share Prof. equip’t Expected For class For lab Est. price*
Clicker (dedicated) $81 (new), $34 (used)**
Dissection kit $10
Lab coat (cloth) $16
Lab coat (disposable) $10
Lab notebook  ✔ $9
Safety glasses $5
Textbook NEW: $110 (binder ready), $200 (hard cover); used avail.***
WBCRS $20 (one term) or $30 (year)****

*Prices at University of Windsor Bookstore or publisher sales rep communication as of time of writing.
** TurningPoint clicker.
*** Brock Biology of Microorganisms, 14th Ed, Pearson Education.(I’m not sure how much used copies go for.)
**** Echo 360 Active Learning Platform.

Does this help? (I’m not sure, though I temporarily felt productive making the table!) The one lonely checkmark in the WBCRS row seems to indicate something, … maybe just that I’m biased in choosing which criteria/aspects are worth considering?  The textbook price really jumps out at me compared to the others (with dedicated clickers following closely). I also realize that I’m generally more comfortable with the idea of additional equipment/costs for labs, but is that justifiable?

How do you decide which ancillary items are required for your courses? Do you have strategies for reducing these costs for students?

6 thoughts on “Ancillary fee anxiety

  1. jchoigt

    We went with no textbook (course web pages instead); only student cost is for WBCRS (Learning Catalytics, $12/semester). And if the student is taking other classes that use Learning Catalytics, there is no additional cost because one semester subscription can be used in multiple classes. Since we use LC for pre-class quizzes, in-class responses, and weekly homework assignments, we feel the value to the students is worth the trivial $12 cost. Previously, we had a textbook and Mastering Bio, which cost students a minimum of $180, plus either a clicker ($60) or Learning Catalytics. Ditching the textbook seems to have marginally improved student learning.

  2. meganbarkerase

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve been vaguely wrestling with similar concerns, and am glad to know I’m not alone. Love your table!

    We also, weirdly enough, have photocopy costs added to each course – though whether it’s just for lab manuals, I don’t know.

    I’m thinking about going open-source with a textbook next year (maybe something from OpenStax), and then I probably won’t feel so bad about moving to a WBCRS system. OpenStax has the benefit that students can buy a paper copy of the free online book if they prefer.

    In any case, I’m still not convinced (for myself and my own class) a WBCRS would add enough to our classroom experience (above and beyond clickers) to warrant getting extra money from the students. I’d love to see some well-done choreography of the non-multiple-choice question types, to see how they’re used to improve peer discussion and other approaches. Also, the publishers seem keen on selling things like integrated ‘systems’ that I can run pre-class quizzes on, but I’ve been pretty happy with just running quizzes through our LMS… which students are already indirectly paying for.

    I also feel weird that I fret so much about 20-30 bucks, but mostly just sigh and roll over about a $175 textbook. Maybe it’s more about the bigger shift towards subscription services that I’m not a fan of.


    1. Thanks for the comments!

      I do think a WBCRS can add additional value beyond traditional clickers (for in-class purposes) … but putting a dollar amount on it is challenging. Your point about the shift to the subscription model is a good one – that bugs me, too!

      Maybe I can move to an open-source text at some point. I’ll be keeping an eye on OpenStax, and if you go that route, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience!

  3. Tamara

    This is a great post, Tanya, and brings up some of the ever-present concerns of asking for tuition and then other course-associated costs. I agree with what you and the commenters have written – it’s easy to get caught up in the small subscription costs of WBCRS and forget that we ask for required textbooks that are expensive. As meganbarkerase pointed out this is likely tied to the subscription, no-reselling model. (Right now I really don’t have to worry about this, as my university hasn’t yet moved to WBCRS and we’re still using clicker hardware.) In my first and second year course, in response to every increasing textbook costs, and textbook SIZE, I’ve moved to custom formats. In my first year course, this has resulted in a fairly cost effective book ($42 vs. $175*), but for my second year genetics, the custom edition was not as cost saving as I would have liked ($120 vs. 200). What I really dislike is that while you can keep a hard cover in perpetuity, etexts are only subscriptions. It’s bad enough that you can’t re-sell the etext, but to have it essentially as a lease seems underhanded. (Although it’s nice to note, many publishers will allow extensions to the etext if a student needs to re-take a course after their etext has expired. But still! You bought the book; it should be yours.) In my fourth year class, there is no need for a text because we can rely on primary articles, etc., and I’m very grateful for that!

    I say to myself that I’m wary of ditching the textbook until there’s adequate online resources, but they’re already there – really it’s the time to curate these that’s the issue (I think this would be an excellent student project, but currently have no students). I like OpenStax, but they don’t have all the material I’d like students to get pre-class, but I could supplement these with video lectures. I do want students to get experience not only pulling information out of online lecture videos, but also from readings. Your blog post has pushed me to ruminate on this idea and the fact that it’s not that there are inadequate reading resources, but that I need to carve out time (perhaps a considerable amount) to discuss with other instructors what’s out there and to curate this – I imagine this is likely a task done better as a community than as an individual, but that requires finding other time to organize this! As well, by selecting readings from non-textbook sources, I’m likely to hit on ones that are more authentic and more interesting for students. I do feel that since we just started a textbook editorial cycle in Fall 2015, I should ride this out, but in the meantime, try to plan out a course based only on free (or much cheaper) materials.

    *price from


    1. Ah, yeah – custom textbooks can cut down on the costs, but I know I had a lot of headaches when I tried that several years ago! And the idea of “expiry” of an eText drives me crazy!

      The idea of taking time to curate what is out there is a good one … and I agree, I think that there might be a role for a community to do this. (Which one[s], though?!)

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