With the increasing digitization of textbooks and learning platforms, some are questioning the effectiveness of these tools — especially when it comes to mandates for the use of access codes in classrooms.
Access codes — which are one-time, individual codes that are necessary to use online course materials — are becoming a more common feature among classes at Penn. For many courses, such as writing seminars and calculus courses, the codes are already bundled inside the textbooks sold at campus bookstores.
Unlike textbooks and other traditional means of learning, these codes cannot be borrowed from the library, bought used or shared between friends.
Director of Academic Affairs Kent Peterman said in an email that, because Penn does not have an official policy governing access codes, it is up to individual professors to decide whether to use them.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck sees great value in access codes for certain courses.
“There are some quite useful and instructive electronic materials offered by textbook publishers that can provide guided practice for doing math and science problems and such, and these resources have been integrated into some courses in beneficial ways,” he said in an email. “But I think students should be sure to check with their instructors whether the electronic resources will be used in an essential way.”
For some classes, such as “Introduction to Macroeconomics,” students are required to purchase access codes and complete online exercises for credit, regardless of whether they buy the physical textbook.
Economics professor Luca Bossi, who teaches the course, said the exercises reduce administrative work in a large lecture and allow for feedback on assignments.
“It prevents cheating to some extent in my opinion, as I can assign exactly the same exercise but with different figures to different students,” he added.
Valerie Ross, director of Penn’s Critical Writing Program, said the bundled packages of writing handbooks and access codes — which are required in all writing seminars — were implemented as a cost-saving measure.
Until a few years ago, the writing program used physical handbooks, but as the cost of the handbook continued to increase year after year, Ross turned to Pearson Publishing Company.
The current arrangement allows students to buy the bundle for $35, cheaper than the market price of approximately $80 and the previous handbook price of $70, she said.
In the writing seminars, the access codes allow students to take grammar diagnostic tests, as well as equip them with other tools like a bibliography builder.
For Ross, the access codes to the online programs are an added bonus that come at a better price.
However, College junior Aliyyah Camp said that her writing seminar did not use the codes at all, even though she was required to buy the bundle.
“I thought it really was a waste of money,” she said. “If you’re going to make something required that you can’t use again, you should make sure that it’s pertinent to the class.”
Other students have found the online access to be convenient.
Engineering sophomore Shelley Lian said though she did not use the additional tools provided with the code, “it was really not a hassle and I just used the online textbook.”
In economics professor Rebecca Stein’s “Introduction to Microeconomics” class, students have the choice of purchasing an access code to an online product called MyEconLab or participating in weekly study sessions.
She acknowledged that while MyEconLab provides definite advantages, its lack of application-based problems is a drawback.
“I didn’t want to make MyEconLab compulsory,” she said. “It’s just not really sufficient for success in my course.”
When students cannot afford the $50 access codes, Stein said she has made sure to provide them with the program at no cost. However, she said that at Penn, the cost barrier posed by the access codes seems to be trivial in light of the overall cost of education.
“It’s basically $100,000 for an education a year if you include the cost of education and the opportunity cost of time,” she said. “If you’re trying to make education more affordable, there are more creative ways to do it.”