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It's Not the Students — It's the Access

Another Semester, Another Concern

For most faculty, there is a sense of excitement and uneasiness in the air at the start of each new term. Frantic energy, affecting new and seasoned instructors alike, as they patiently await the presence of students into their classrooms and lecture halls. For most instructors the first-week concerns are pretty similar: Will my class fill? Did I get an instructor copy of the text? Do I have enough syllabus copies printed out? etc.

Oddly enough, that has never been the case for me. I have always been anxious about a whole other student matter: Which students would not have access to the learning materials required for my course?

As each term begins this issue pops up again and again. Students show up to the first day of class without the required textbook(s). And I know what you’re thinking, so what! They’re probably just trying to figure out if they even need to buy the thing. For some, that’s probably true. But then it gets on to the second week of class, and then third, and then months go by and some of those same students still don’t have the materials they need to pass the class. It’s not for lack of trying; there’s a whole host of really good reasons: financial aid comes in late, students don’t have the money, they ordered it from somewhere cheap and it’s taking forever to ship, etc.

No matter the reason, the fact is students who start the semester without the necessary materials are at a noticeable disadvantage. They fall behind in terms of studying, homework, class participation, and tests in relation to their peers. As faculty, we tend to try to come up with unique ways to assist our students who present with this unearned disadvantage, from making textbooks available in the library to seeking out student book share programs, etc. but these ad hoc solutions won’t be able to help everyone.  

After many years of seeing the same student situations, I decided enough was enough.

Change in the Air 

I waited silently for my 9 a.m. students to trickle into my brightly lit classroom. I began as I always had, with the syllabus review and course assignments overview. I asked if anyone had questions; which, I knew there would be given my new implementation of student learning materials. Several students ended up raising their hands.

Does the bookstore carry the book and access card for this course?”

No! Your materials have already been covered in your tuition cost. You need only follow the registration prompts within our Learning Management System to begin your Connect assignments.” I replied with a sense of accomplishment.

After spending semesters being tired of watching students go without materials for lengthy periods of my class, I had started to investigate alternative options. Something that could level the playing field so that no one would be left behind at the start of the term. I ended up landing on something called Inclusive Access. And I’m sure you’re asking yourselves the same thing I did, what in the world is inclusive access?

Simply put, it’s a delivery model. Inclusive access is a partnership between an institution, bookstore, and a publisher, like McGraw-Hill,  to deliver digital course materials to students, below market rates, on or before the first day of class. The course materials, still selected by the instructor based on what they want to use, are integrated into the school’s learning management system and billed via the bookstore and institution as part of a student’s tuition. Since it’s part of a student’s tuition the access to the course materials is available immediately to everyone and often at a lower price.

The Monday Morning Surprise 

After the first week of class underway, I woke up early on Monday so that I could grab a cup of coffee and brace myself for the influx of emails that would be sure to flood my inbox. I had given my first reading assignment for the term (a chapter in their Connect eBook) and experience had taught me to be ready for the litany of excuses and apologies coming from my students saying that they were unable to complete this week's assignments. I was begrudgingly ready for it, but my inbox told a completely new story. Not one student message was waiting for me. It's still early, I thought to myself. I decided to do a little sleuthing and check my Blackboard grade book and see directly how my students were progressing on the Connect reading assignments. I literally almost choked on my coffee. More than 85% of my students had completed the coursework. I quickly looked at several of my other courses; which revealed the same results.

I figured it was a fluke. No way would changing how my students received their course materials yield this kind of a result. And then it happened again next week…across all five sections.

If it sounds gimmicky or unbelievable, I completely understand. Instructors, myself included, have been sold a bill of goods on the “wonders” of educational technology before and seen it come crashing down on us mid-semester. But the fact of it is inclusive access isn’t an educational technology or some new resource that you have to change the way you teach to use. It’s a delivery model, with the same books and technology you use now, that’s just designed to help remove the friction – access codes, registration, no money for required materials – that we all deal with at the start of each new semester. And for the students who have always struggled the most financially with getting materials for the first day of class, it’s a clear way to ensure they start their semester off strong.

Noticeable Change

Long story short, I am thrilled by the noticeable changes that have occurred by simply taking a few small steps to ensure that course materials are accessible to students on day one of the semester.

  • More than 85% of my students completing their Connect chapter reading assignments by the scheduled deadline
  • More engaging instructor/student discussions in class about the chapter readings
  • Less time responding to emails about alternative access to course materials
  • Students having one less obstacle in their way to accomplishing their academic goals.

My results aren’t unique; McGraw-Hill has seen similar changes in research studies they’ve conducted with schools who have used inclusive access. But it isn’t magic. I won’t pretend that inclusive access will suddenly eliminate all student and faculty woes or ensure that all students will suddenly read every chapter and pass every course. What it does do is give all of our students a fair and equal chance, regardless of financial status, to have access to the tools they need to succeed in our classrooms. And I think we owe it to our students to at least explore the option.

About the Author

The Instructional Chair for the Department of Speech and the Accelerated Associate of Arts Program Coordinator at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Kimberly OmniEssence has been an educator for over a decade. She is a veteran of the United States Navy, and a Certified Relationship and Corporate Communication Coach. Her master’s degree is in Organizational Leadership and Communication and her bachelor’s is in psychology. Kimberly teaches an array of speech communication courses and serves as a Communication Analyst on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Association of Nurse Practitioners.

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