Fight the fees — including the hidden ones

Cost and ineffectiveness make microtransactions unjustifiable
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

In recent weeks, students have expressed outrage on Reddit about the increasing phenomenon of “microtransactions,” which, in this context, refers to mandatory third-party subscriptions in certain courses for class participation grades and charged on top of tuition. This includes services such as Top Hat, iClicker, and EcoLab. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is consulting students on their experience with microtransactions and advocating for the elimination of these fees. Below, two students argue against microtransactions with regard to their cost and ineffectiveness.

An inflated cost for a fraction of a grade

Microtransactions are commonly used in courses across multiple disciplines, but it is difficult to know if a professor will ask students to make a purchase until one enrols in the course and sees the syllabus. Hence, it always comes as a nasty surprise when a professor stresses that a device or app must be purchased for a small percentage of the final grade.

Often, these prices are justified by professors who appeal to ‘enhanced learning’ or ‘interactive classrooms.’ Still, these microtransactions come at a steep price and will undoubtedly add up over the years.

For example, many math and science courses like MAT223: Linear Algebra I and IMM250: The Immune System and Infectious Disease require Top Hat, a software allowing instructors to give online in-class questions and homework to students. The cheapest option for Top Hat is a four-month subscription costing $26, leaving many students in the position of wondering whether that five or 10 per cent of their grade is worth the cost.

The most infuriating microtransaction, though, is the iClicker. I cannot stress enough that an iClicker is a very simple piece of machinery whose only function is to record a multiple choice response. Yet the U of T Bookstore charges a hefty price of $47.50, which comes to $53.70 after tax. Unwilling to pay that price, I resorted to ordering one for $5 off Kijiji, despite the risk of getting a dud or being murdered by the seller. Sadly, I’m not the only one who has done this. Some students even consider dropping out of courses altogether to avoid microtransactions.

What is even more baffling is that there are numerous websites that could serve as free alternatives to Top Hat, McGraw Hill, or iClickers. One example is Poll Everywhere, which is also often used by professors. Poll Everywhere functions similarly to Top Hat or an iClicker by allowing students to answer online multiple choice or short answer questions for class participation and homework. If free alternatives exist with the same functionality, then microtransactions are wholly unjustifiable.

Many students, including myself, have joked that professors must be sponsored by companies to have microtransactions in their classes. Interestingly, the use of Top Hat requires students to pay, but not professors, and Financial Post suggests that the popularity of Top Hat among professors is because they don’t have to pay at all.

Of course, some professors will argue that no free alternatives provide a learning experience as good as the microtransaction-funded ones. However, Poll Everywhere has been successfully implemented for large courses such as STA220: The Practice of Statistics I.

Quite frankly, providing students with a better learning experience should be the job of the professor — not some learning software with a fancy name. If microtransactions are truly ‘essential’ for a course, then these fees should be subsidized by the university, rather than being imposed on students on the first day of class. It unethically requires students to pay again for a portion of their grade.

Students are already hard-pressed for cash after paying their hefty tuition, and this financial stress will only continue to grow as long as the university remains insensitive to this issue. Mandatory microtransactions that affect grades should be eliminated because of the financial burden it places on students and the free alternatives that are available. There should be no extra costs for participating in class.

Hyerin Jeong is a second-year Physiology and Cell & Molecular Biology student at New College.

You can’t put a price on participation

When I found out that some of my classes had additional costs for services that were for marks, I was pretty disgruntled. Although they have been termed ‘microtransactions,’ I do not believe that the term suitably addresses the detrimental impacts these services can have.

From MindTap to iClickers, their common purpose is to ostensibly encourage class participation and force students to develop stronger memorization-related study habits. But the extent to which they serve this purpose is questionable. For one astronomy class I took, 21 per cent of my final grade was allocated to material from a Mastering Astronomy subscription and using iClickers in lectures and tutorials. Granted, I scored highly, but I was well aware that this was not a true reflection of my abilities.

It is fairly simple to score 100 per cent on an online, multiple-choice assignment with the textbook beside you. Some students even try to leave iClickers with friends instead of coming to class — a recurring problem that our professor outlined in the syllabus as having tremendous repercussions if caught. But this shows that making iClickers in lectures mandatory does little to encourage participation: the ‘participation’ involved in answering clicker questions is very forced.

Although the questions are meant to provoke thought and engagement with the material being covered, most students tend to depend on peers to respond. Similarly, the use of online services for homework does very little to challenge the student academically, with answers to all questions freely available online and no way of disciplining students to complete the assignments truthfully.

Learning itself is a choice, and students who choose to not make the most of these tools are only harming their own academic experience. To an extent, I stand in defence of some of the crucial benefits these services could potentially offer.

With MindTap for psychology, students were forced into a regime that required consistent memorization of key concepts, thus avoiding cramming the night before an exam. The technology here supports the idea that spaced out study sessions boosts the ability of the brain to memorize dense content by repetition.

However, by making this a mandatory component of the final grade, professors are disincentivizing students from developing these study habits for themselves. A classmate commented that that it is almost like a ‘check-in-the-box’ that they are obligated to do because they know there is a deadline to complete the task weekly and they can’t afford to sacrifice that portion of their grade. But at what cost?

For most, this ‘check-in-the-box’ attitude means that they devote less time to using these resources as intended and consider them as just a small portion of their grade, rather than an intellectually beneficial way to interact with the course. The objective of increasing student participation is sacrificed for the sake of incentivizing students to participate in the first place.

I strongly believe that a student cannot be forced into study habits that they don’t already have, regardless of any benefits. To me, microtransactions seem like an effort to regulate attendance, which is a fair demand. But you can’t really put a price on participation. To me, the solution to this matter is two-fold: subsidize these costs and make them optional.

The primary benefit of subsidizing microtransactions is that students from favourable socioeconomic backgrounds will no longer be advantaged compared to those struggling to afford a percentage of their grade by buying these services. However, this in itself does very little to address the question of participation. Subsidization in conjunction with choice will do more to encourage students to participate in a way that accords with their individual learning abilities.

Putting a price on participation will not improve or change study habits. Learning should be a choice, not one that students have to dish out extra cash for.

Neeharika Hemrajani is a first-year Humanities student at St. Michael’s College.

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