‘Behind a paywall’: Students, faculty discuss trials, tribulations of paid materials

Photo of Top Hat Attendance Feature
David McAllister/Staff
Certain online fees for courses deter students from taking certain courses, especially when the fees are not made apparent through CalCentral to students during the registration process.

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As UC Berkeley faculty members begin to post their syllabi and students prepare for the semester ahead, certain questions arise — what do I need for class and how much will it cost me?

For campus rising junior Cyrus Bugwadia, this question was answered in an email from Top Hat, an active learning platform that allows students to participate in class and complete interactive assignments.

“Access your instructor’s online course for 14 days without payment,” the email reads. “After your trial has ended, you will need to purchase all required content to access your Top Hat course.”

This, Bugwadia was not expecting. Airing his frustration on Facebook, Bugwadia wrote that his class had been “placed behind a paywall.”

While Bugwadia said he understands small fees for things such as lab equipment, he believes paying extra for services that have free alternatives is “absurd.”

“Education should strive to be accessible and equitable, and locking courses behind a paywall is a step in the wrong direction,” Bugwadia said in an email. “It is also particularly egregious that Top Hat Pro is free for professors, putting the financial burden on students, who are already paying thousands in tuition, instead.”

It’s fees such as this that deter students such as campus rising junior Ella Schwarz from taking certain courses, especially those that aren’t required for her major.

There is no standard across the board, however, as every class is different.

Campus rising senior Caroline Liu pointed out that there is a difference between classes that list payment information upfront and charge it through CalCentral and those that reveal it once students are already enrolled.

“Overall, I wish it were more clear that there were hidden fees,” Liu said in an email. “If a professor or instructor requires usage of a certain service to submit homework, it should be made clear in the course description, be packaged in the CalCentral payments so it can be disputed via financial aid, or just should be discarded as it’s unfair to students who can’t afford it.”

Some classes — such as Computer Science 10 — were designed to be completely free for students with the goal of supporting universal education, even for those with the “tightest, leanest” budgets, according to campus teaching professor Dan Garcia.

Though Garcia has found effective ways to engage his students without charging them, other professors use paid programs to enhance student learning.

Michelle Douskey, a senior campus lecturer, uses Hayden McNeil Lab Solutions in her Chemistry 1AL course to provide support and immediate feedback that graduate student instructors cannot.

“Through all this the students learn some of the basic calculations they need for the experiment plus some of the chemistry concepts that apply,” Douskey said in an email. “The hope is that during the experiment, the chemistry will make more sense.”

The program also includes laboratory simulations that provide training for experiments and became the closest thing to performing actual experiments when remote instruction began, Douskey added.

Similar to Douskey, campus professor Christopher Gade found the program he was using in Psychology W1, MindTap, to be useful when his in-person Psychology 1 course moved online. It allowed students to interact with the material in new ways and keep up with scheduled activities.

“Though there are definitely some challenges and unfortunate costs that come along with this, I believe that supplementing the typically required papers, posts, and exams with this material can be of great benefit to the learning of the students in these classes,” Gade said in an email.

Though the shift to remote may have raised costs for some students, it has also led campus to brainstorm ways to reduce said costs.

In fact, the discontinuation of physical iClicker use prompted Berkeley Research, Teaching and Learning, or RTL, to create a free virtual student response system solution that will be put into practice this fall, according to the Learning Environments and Tools team within RTL.

This is something that campus professor Lane Martin, who frequently used iClickers in his in-person classes, would be open to exploring.

“Many of us will transition to that kind of stuff, in particular if it’s integratable with the existing campus IT structure for education,” Martin said. “Nobody really wants to make students spend more money; it’s about getting the educational experience as good as we can at the end of the day.”

Veronica Roseborough is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.