After multiple posts on Reddit lodged complaints against the use of mandatory third-party academic tools, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) announced efforts to work with the university to address fees associated with digital learning services such as TopHat, WileyPlus, and McGraw-Hill Connect.

University guidelines

The university does have pre-existing guidelines on digital learning services, including a threshold for charging students $65 per half-credit. Services tied to publishing companies such as MindTap and WileyPlus charge $59.95 and $60 respectively, just below the mandated threshold. MindTap is owned by Cengage, an online textbook publishing company, and WileyPlus is a digital service provided by Wiley, a textbook publishing company.

The guidelines also stipulate that, if fees exceed the $65 threshold, alternative options must be provided for assessments made through these digital learning services.

Students must also be allowed to purchase the digital components separately, meaning that purchasing e-textbooks bundled with learning service codes must not be mandatory.

U of T spokesperson Elizabeth Church told The Varsity that the university does not receive any incentives for using digital learning services.

“Professors determine which resources are best for their course and may choose to use digital resources to meet their teaching and learning goals.”

Professors on why they use digital learning services

In various statements to The Varsity, professors justified their use of these digital learning services by saying that it enriched students’ learning experiences — although some lamented the fact that they were necessary.

All the professors who provided comment denied ever receiving any form of incentive to use these services and affirmed that they accommodate students who cannot afford or have difficulty affording the class’ digital learning service.

Professor Kripa Freitas, whose ECO206: Microeconomic Theory course used TopHat last year, emphasized that paid learning services were not her first choice when finding a system that integrated multiple-choice and short answer responses.

TopHat is an educational software from a Toronto-based company.

Freitas however noted that TopHat is useful for larger, second-year courses and helps to actively engage “every student in class.”

“I know I re-evaluate my use of any paid extras every time I teach. I explain my reasons for using them to students clearly and solicit student feedback continuously.”

For PSY201: Statistics I and PSY202: Statistics II, Professor Molly Metz uses MindTap, an application that she has not been offered incentives to use, although she has “heard of this happening, at many institutions.”

“I also know of many colleagues who have refused to use the products offered by these companies because of their distaste with what they (and I) see as unethical behaviour,” wrote Metz.

Metz, like Freitas, believes that using applications like MindTap serves to help engage students and create a better learning environment by using a system that allows for fast and regular response times on problem sets. She also added that MindTap is included in the textbook, and thus is not an additional cost to the course, but integrated in the core cost.

However, the cost of digital learning services cannot be transferred in the same way used textbooks can be sold to another student.

ESS205: Confronting Global Change Professor Miriam Diamond, PHY205: The Physics of Everyday Life Professor Brian Wilson, and AST251: Life on Other Worlds Professor Michael Reid all echoed their colleagues’ sentiments, underscoring that no free alternatives of equal quality to these digital learning services are available.

Reid also emphasized that TopHat has had a real, positive effect on student engagement.

On the possibility of a singular, university-wide system, Reid wrote, “At a university as big as U of T, it’s very difficult to obtain the necessary consensus across diverse departments and faculties. Still, it’s something to which I think we can aspire.”

Professor Avi Cohen uses MyEconLab for ECO105: Principles of Economics for Non-Specialists, and also denied ever receiving incentives to use the application. However, he also disclosed at the top of his email that “I am an author for Pearson Canada. My textbooks and associated MyEconLab software are assigned for ECO105Y.”

MyEconLab is the economics learning software for Pearson, an education publishing company.

Justifying his use of MyEconLab, Cohen wrote, “I view these expenditures as smart financial choices. The benefits… far exceed the costs.” Benefits cited include Canvas integration and 24/7 technical support.

“The motivation for using these paid applications is that they provide a much better learning experience for students, and better administrative efficiency for instructors than ‘free alternatives.’ You get what you pay for.”

Crowd-sourced information on fees

Following Reddit posts made by u/rhymenasourus, u/NoOutsideFeesUofT, and u/Kluey on the U of T subreddit, Christopher Dryden, a computer engineering student and former UTSU director, compiled a list of classes and professors that use paid digital learning services.

According to Dryden’s crowdsourced list, TopHat gains more than $200,000 from some 7,000 students who use its digital learning services across 27 classes.

Cohen’s class is also listed in Dryden’s list, and with a maximum potential class size of 897, Pearson’s MyEconPlus generates upward of $100,000 from ECO105 students in a given year. This year, there are roughly 730 students enrolled in ECO105, according to U of T’s timetable.

The Varsity was unable to independently verify the information as it was anonymously crowdsourced.

The UTSU responds

UTSU Vice-President University Affairs Joshua Grondin wrote in a statement to The Varsity that he is working with Dryden and Spencer Robertson, President of the University of Toronto Tabletop Gaming Club and another active user on the U of T subreddit, to prepare a report for the Business Board of Governing Council.

The report will include student feedback, clarification on the incentive structures for professors, and data on classes that use digital learning services.

Grondin stated that their ultimate goal is for the university to purchase an institution-wide subscription for digital learning services, and if that fails, for the university to institute stronger regulations on these services and disallow any ties between student use and evaluation.

At the very least, Grondin hopes to ensure that prices for digital learning services are included in course descriptions.

“It is my belief that when it comes to gaining full marks in a course, students should not have to pay anything above what they have already paid in tuition fees. If a professor wants to use these materials for graded exercises/quizzes, the cost needs to be covered by the university through tuition and ancillary fees, not a separate transaction.”

Dryden did not respond to The Varsitys request for comment.