WebAssign is the New McGraw-Hill

Textbook cost a huge amount of money. Any college student you talk to can attest to this. An NBC article looked at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that from January of 1977 to June of 2015 have seen a 1014% increase. 1014%. No I didn’t miss a decimal point.

Now, the NBC article also included quotes from a spokeswoman from the Association of American Publishers who said the data was “‘misleading’ because of the ‘law of small numbers’ where a small item that increases from $100 to $200 will appear as a 100 percent increase whereas if tuition increases from $10,000 to $11,000 it’s only a 10 percent increase”.  She also said that it was misleading because of students selling used text books and renting them. Which is a really good way to distract people from the fact that over 38 years, textbook prices have increased 1014%.

Some universities are changing the way they use textbooks in order to save students money. The University of Maryland University College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Kansas State University, Tacoma Community College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Maryland are all featured in a Times article about schools that are now using open textbooks. Open textbooks are free online and can be printed for much cheaper.

Now, as people are becoming more vocal about the prices of textbooks, a new way to get students to pay money is surfacing. WebAssign, MySpanishLab, Aplia, Sapling, and MasteringBiology are all very common place at UNC and other universities across the country. These are a new way to have students pay to do their homework. Yes, you read that right, I have to pay to do my homework. And you don’t have an option of buying used, renting, or sharing like you do with textbooks. These platforms are a way for teachers to put homework online and assign problem sets between classes. I’ll go over each one individually.

  • WebAssign: By partnering with textbook publishers, WebAssign creates textbook specific content. This means that students will often have to buy new textbooks, instead of being able to rent them or buy them used, because a cheaper access card comes with a new, unopened textbook. This is the only website like this I have personally used and our entire grade came from doing assignments on this website. I had difficulty with the site, especially since it doesn’t offer partial credit and forces you to do math problems in only one way. According to the UNC Student Stores website, for MATH 130, the class that I took that uses WebAssign, the textbook is $133 and the access pin for WebAssign is $92.
  • MyLanguageLab: This is made by Pearson and is used in many different language classes at UNC. I’ve specifically known people who have used it for French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The lower level classes (and maybe the higher level classes, but I don’t have much information about those) require you to have a MyLanguageLab account and also loose leaf texts that you put in a binder. For SPAN 101, the MyLanguageLab account alone costs $126 and the account with the loose leaf texts costs $194.
  • Aplia: This program is used for ECON 101 here at Carolina, meaning there’s a large volume of students who are going to be taking this class. It’s been around for 10 years and has a counter on its front page stating the amount of questions answered on their website (as of right now it’s at 1.7 billion and counting). The cost to buy the textbook and the subscription for ECON 101 is $166.
  • Mastering Biology/Physics/Chemistry/Environmental Science: This program is focused towards the different sciences. Another program by Pearson, it claims to be helping students learn. BIOL 101 uses Mastering Biology, and, like Pearson’s other program MyLanguageLab, a loose leaf text is also required. The textbook for that class, without the access card costs $206 and with the access card costs $232. For PHYS 114 (the introductory physics class offered at UNC), the textbook with the access card costs $297 and without it costs $275.
  • Sapling: Despite the existence of Mastering Chemistry and WebAssign, the UNC chemistry department uses Sapling Learning for its chemistry classrooms. This costs $48.

And as if that wasn’t enough, many STEM classes use iClickers, which, according to the Student Stores website, cost $56 and are required in lecture. They are used to answer multiple choice questions and are a new way that professors take attendance in large lectures. These iClickers can be bought new or used and reused throughout college. There may be a large, up-front cost, however if students buy them used and sell when they are done, they won’t necessarily be incredibly expensive. This is vastly different than the computer programs that are now making students pay to do their homework. Many of the costs listed above only are for a semester or a year, meaning that if a student has to use that specific program again for a different class, they will have to purchase a new subscription.

A friend of mine had PHYS 118, MATH 232, and ECON 101 last semester, in addition to two other classes. Just for those classes, she had to buy an iClicker ($56 new, $42 used), a Mastering Physics membership with the e-text ($135), a physics textbook ($289 new, $216 used), a calculus textbook with the WebAssign access card ($270),  and a package that included the Economics textbook and an Aplia membership ($166). That means she spend between $775 and $916 on course materials for only 3 courses. The university estimates that students should be paying an average of $721 per semester on books and supplies.

What I didn’t realize when coming into college is that the cost of your books depends on your major. In fields where they can distill the information down easily to problem sets (math or science based classes and even foreign language classes), using online programs to assign homework is common place. This takes out the complexities and uncertainties that exist in these classes. It also means students who are taking a large number of STEM classes or even foreign language are having astronomically high additional costs to get an education. Unlike a textbook, which a student could share with another, rent, or resell, there is no way to get around the high costs of these programs.

When I entered Carolina, I was torn between science and the humanities. I had had high level experience in both subjects and had done very well in them in high school. But when it came down to it, these programs made me reconsider how much I liked science. What I loved about biology in high school was the uncertainties and the places that required some more explanation and couldn’t be reduced down to a fill in the blank question to really see if you understood the concept. I do not plan to take another STEM class here at Carolina.

I also loved foreign language classes and had taken French for four years in high school. I became conversational and was able to function well in French society during a 3 week foreign exchange program. I could understand and communicate with ease and did very well in that program. The last two years that I took French, I was in International Baccalaureate french classes, which has a more holistic way of assessing, including an oral task and a small article or brochure written on a specific topic. Comprehension was valued over simple grammatical or spelling errors (which can be quite common, considering French isn’t very phonetic and the grammar rules are complicated). I thought about continuing with French. However the UNC placement exam, which had a significant grammar section (which of these conjugations goes where) and spelling section and was completely multiple choice or fill in the blank, placed me into the class that is for students who’ve only taken one or two years of a language at the beginning of high school. I understood every passage and every listening section perfectly and could’ve elaborated on them in a spoken or written mode, but because the way it was graded was so simplified, my strength in the language was eliminated. I do not plan to take any foreign language classes here at Carolina.

Universities, like K-12 education, has been moving towards quantitative measurements and away from qualitative measurements. As schools are run more like businesses, efficiency and hard data are being valued over actual measurements that are indicative of student’s understanding. These programs don’t only represent a clever new way to make money off of young adults who are trying to get an education, they also manage to simplify the way we’re teaching STEM and foreign language classes to a point where memorization is more important than practical application.

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2 Responses to WebAssign is the New McGraw-Hill

  1. sydneymitchell17 says:

    Margaret, thank you so much for sharing this post! I completely agree and have had similar experiences that you’ve described. Like you, I did IB in high school and I think that it was a huge shock to come to college and see that many of my classes were reduced to online programs like the ones you described above. I also took French in high school and middle schools (so 7 years) and I was placed into the 3rd level of French through the placement exam due to simple grammar mistakes. I always had enjoyed biology but after taking it here with the Mastering Biology program, I realized this was not the field for me, I didn’t want to spend my entire college career studying, rather memorizing facts! Great post!!


  2. juniperonjupiter says:

    It seems that K-12 is not the only area of education where people–students and teachers–are being devalued. These formulaic online courses are taking much of the human component out of education in favor of educational “packages” which are not good at recognizing “out of the box” ways of learning, and are not flexible or responsive to the needs of the students taking them, as in your experience with the French assessment. Rote memorization is something we moved away from a long time ago in American education; it is sad to see it make its way back, to the benefit of almost nobody. Thanks for your post, Margaret–it was really eye-opening to read.


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