Longhorns need fewer online learning tools, not more

Spencer Buckner

The hidden costs of college are always the ones that hurt the most. As a freshman, I knew what I was getting into with tuition, housing and even textbooks, but UT’s litany of extraneous costs caught me by surprise. From paying exorbitant parking fees to outsized amounts for basic Wi-Fi, Longhorns are confronted with unknown costs at every corner of campus. Thanks to an explosion of new online educational tools, unexpected costs have come to our classrooms as well.

Students are well-adjusted to completing homework assignments online, watching lecture videos from the comfort of their room and checking their grades over the internet. Yet however useful they may be, the programs bring an unwelcome price.

Aashna Lal, a Plan II and biology freshman, is required by her current instructors to use a total of four different paid online programs — Squarecap, Poll Everywhere, Reef and Sapling. Looking at the minimum per-semester costs for these programs, Lal is paying at least 75 dollars this semester alone.

“Right now I’m paying for three programs that are only used to take attendance,” Lal explains. 

It’s senseless to require students to pay for a single program used for attendance purposes, let alone three. For Sapling, the only software Lal uses that actually serves a unique purpose — doing homework — the minimum price is $36 per semester, and only a few courses use it. Lal’s story isn’t unique. Students in STEM-related fields are uniquely burdened with the costs of online programs, compounded by arm-and-leg textbook fees.

Excess costs aren’t exclusive to just STEM students, however. Like Lal, I too was required by professors to pay for programs only used for attendance purposes. The $40 I spent on four years of Squarecap, which I’m not even sure if I will need, could have easily been better spent elsewhere — especially when my professor could have just as easily taken attendance on a free Google form.

Paid programs can, without a doubt, serve a vital role in expanding educational opportunities. What must be changed is the sheer number of programs that professors expect students to pay for. Quest, another online learning tool, and Squarecap were both developed either here at UT or by Longhorn alumni. Shouldn’t we support university-born programs and encourage their usage by our staff? Of course, these two programs alone can’t cover the needs of all professors on campus, but encouraging their standardization on campus would reduce both the inefficiency and cost of the laundry list of programs that Longhorns are currently expected to use.

While professors and staff deserve the freedom to choose technology that will enhance their classes, students shouldn’t have to face excessive fees each semester. The only difference between expensive textbooks and online programs is that, in 2017, students are expected to finance both. The internet is increasingly vital to education. Let’s minimize the financial burden we put on students to use it.

Buckner is a Plan II and government freshman. He is a columnist.