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)**|
|Lab coat (cloth)||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||$16|
|Lab coat (disposable)||✔||✔||✔||$10|
|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?