Course readers continue to burden students’ wallets, lines pockets of publishers

Course Reader Material is one of the locations students can buy course readers their professors require for class. But despite providing students their required reading, this doesn’t justify their high costs caused by licensing issues. (Amy Dixon/Photo editor)

Westwood may seem safe on the surface, but, as any student could tell you, it’s an academic wild west. Like a stray bullet in the midst of a bar fight, this student was hit by a painful surprise this quarter: an $80 charge for a course reader.

Course readers are paper-bound, custom-printed collections of materials that instructors can choose to prepare for classes. They can offer a flexible and curated alternative to traditional textbooks.

However, they can also be exorbitantly expensive. Additionally, it can be difficult to hold instructors accountable for conflicts of interest or quality issues in the course readers they assign. For example, a course reader that is currently used for an upper division computer network class predicts the results of wireless technology will come out in “early 2002″ – yes, that’s future tense.

Complaints about course readers go back nearly as far. Students from the early aughts wrote against high prices and the costs of copyright licenses. With 400 to 500 courses utilizing course readers each year, they impact thousands of students. In the last decade, students have continued to be affected by prices, and the format itself has been critiqued with the rise of digital outlets like CCLE.

Students are at the mercy of the educational materials they are obligated to purchase and use. Course readers can be expensive, largely because of licensing issues with publishers and professors themselves. Students have little recourse when holding professors accountable and for communicating their issues, and UCLA should better regulate course reader offerings.

Certainly, course readers aren’t inherently bad. They can lead to a better experience, if used correctly.

“I was having students order these quite expensive books, most of which we weren’t using,” said Saree Makdisi, a professor in the English department, on using “The Norton Anthology of English Literature” in his English 10B class. “Plus, I was supplementing on top of them.”

Makdisi created a course reader that includes readings directly aligning with the course curriculum. It contains nearly everything a student needs for his class and can be purchased for $21 from the course reader store. A set of “The Norton Anthology of English Literature” runs for about $65 dollars on Amazon.

However, costs aren’t always so low, and it isn’t always clear why.

Guy Adams, manager at the Associated Students UCLA Course Reader Solutions office, said the cost of the readers sold at the course reader store consists of materials, operational expenses and, in certain cases, copyright fees. These fees can comprise a major part of the price students pay. UCLA does have agreements with some publishers to ameliorate this issue, but not all.

“Faculty that own the material themselves are just like any other source to us,” Adams said.

The majority of professors who own the copyright to their work may agree to waive associated fees at the ASUCLA store, but they aren’t required to. They aren’t obligated to go through the Student Union-controlled course reader store at all, but can get their work published at a number of stores in Westwood, all with idiomatic licensing rules and costs. Adams said some professors reportedly don’t realize they may be signing away such rights to waive fees when writing for another company.

All this means the prices of course readers go up. If professors are responsible for copyright fees, students aren’t likely to know or be able to do anything about it.

Departments can address this by more thoroughly evaluating materials, in terms of content and cost. Professors should be better informed about intellectual property pitfalls, and be held more accountable for their choices. They should also give students a way to provide input or complaints about the quality and cost of materials in an easily accessible and clear manner.

More thorough departmental review of educational materials can also help prevent abuse of course reader assignments. Departments can create policies that encourage more accountability.

Some departments have already moved in the right direction. Last year, the chemistry and biochemistry department required professors to provide no-cost educational options and inform students of any profits made within their syllabuses. Educational materials are also reviewed by committee. Though it can take time and energy, accountability, openness and review can improve the student experience. Other departments should look into adopting similar measures.

Certainly, taking the reins out of professors’ hands may seem an infringement of the intellectual rights of instructors to restrict how their work is used or what goes into them. But that work is also the product of the support of the UCLA community at large – of the lab, offices and intellectual capacity provided here. And students drive that community forward. Future generations of researchers and workers are raised here, and all parties stand to benefit from more open options for educational materials.

Bad course reader assignments are a stressful, unregulated and expensive burden on our education. The university needs to tame the wild west of the course reader market and bring more controls into the equation.

It’s high noon for education, and it’s time for UCLA to draw.

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