Education Apps are a Disease

Going into my freshman year at MSU, I thought I was aware of all the ways that colleges can take extra money on top of tuition. Textbooks? I rented them, unless I was forced to buy a new edition. Blue Books? Bummed them from my friends or Student Services. I was going to be the one college student who was Aware of the System.

Then the education technology showed up.

These apps are going to be the death of me. It’s like once people made the only good education app (Kahoot, obviously), they devoted the rest of their lives to making Worse Kahoot. We’re now overrun by extra digital bells and whistles on top of our textbooks, most of which aren’t free. From WeBWork to Packback to Kritik, intro courses seem to find new ways to make students pay more just to access course materials that could be done with a free alternative.

Unfortunately, there’s no unity between professors deciding to use said programs. I bought an iClicker (go ahead, roast me) instead of renting one before my first semester. Although I felt stupid when I found out I could have rented it for free the whole time, at least I actually needed it then. I’ve used it once since that semester, but the purchase lives forever.  

Which would be well and good if the list of paid apps wasn’t growing all the time. For me, the most popular extra purchase is Top Hat, for in-class quizzes and snitch-tracking attendance. Though it’s only around $30 per semester or $75 lifetime, it runs into the same problem I have with all these add-ons: Didn’t we used to do this for free? The paper quizzes I took throughout my childhood cost $0 and were exactly as effective as a Top Hat quiz. The only thing that seems easier is that profs don’t have to make physical copies of the quiz, which definitely saves them some time. But it’s a giant pain to pay thousands of dollars for tuition, room/board, textbooks, and get hit with a $30 fee to access quiz software that doesn’t even let me name myself “K. Sins.”

One thing to note is that the distribution of the classes that require these apps follows a predictable pattern. A quick survey I did of around 50 MSU course syllabi from the last two years available on the Internet showed me that most of the classes that had these extra paid add-ons were 100- or 200-level courses. By the 400-levels, they were totally gone. How could this be?

Top Hat promotional material posted on Reddit and Twitter several years ago offer a clue. “I am so confident Top Hat will transform your lecture & engage students, I’m giving qualified professors a FREE iPad Mini to prove me wrong,” reads the Reddit post. But only professors who teach over 75 students in a class were able to be enticed by a free iPad. Fortunately for us students, many 400-levels are unscathed by this kind of behavior by virtue of not having 75 students.

To compensate for the added cost for students, the app makers constantly tell us “But it replaces the textbook so it’s cheaper!” MISS ME WITH THAT. Major textbook companies have made their own apps, like MindTap and Connect, that force students to pay $100 at the bookstores for a piece of paper that lets them access their textbook and homework. And if you’re fortunate to have a “recommended” analog textbook, sometimes you still end up needing it to understand what’s going on. That $150 textbook just turned into $180, $200, or more. I can hear my savings falling from space as I type! 

Out of those 50 syllabi I mentioned earlier, none leans into the paid app craze like Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter’s PSY320 from last spring. Reading through the syllabus, one hundred percent of the points in this class could only be earned using four different pieces of paid software! You’re on the hook for $66 on top of the $100 you need for the access code for the online textbook. And all these apps have a free equivalent. What is inherent about Packback, Kritik, Top Hat, or hiding the textbook behind an online paywall that make them the most attractive option other than modest time savings?

At times, it feels like what is inherent among students, professors, and app makers alike is the belief in Technology that we all generally share, and its capacity to Innovate and Do New Things. But there’s a line between where technology enhances the education experience (like when I zone out of classes on my laptop) and when it’s an unnecessary purchase like Top Hat. These apps aren’t enhancing my educational experience, and I bet a lot of people feel the same. Until they do, there’s no good reason to be forced to pay for them.

-K. Sins (sent from my iPad)

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