Choosing Course Resources: A Conversation with Stephen Thomas and Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah

Is it ethical to charge students extra for digital learning experiences when traditionally those costs have been covered by tuition? A question posed by Stephen Thomas, Hub Fellow

We wanted to know how professors choose classroom texts and resources. So we asked them. This is the final interview in a series of five conversations. Our purpose has been to to spotlight some of the interesting ways our educators are making innovative choices to help us learn more and spend less.

If you missed them, read the following interviews:

  • the interview with Melanie Cooper, professor of chemistry,
  • the interview with  Ioana Sonea, associate professor of veterinary medicine,
  • the interview with Paul Irving, assistant professor of physics education,
  • and the interview with Jane Zimmerman, instructor of mathematics.

Interview Transcript:

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah: Can you tell me about a meaningful course resource from your own undergraduate degree experience?

Thomas - Hub Fellow

Stephen Thomas, Digital Curriculum Coordinator for the College of Natural Science, and Hub Fellow

Stephen Thomas: The one that comes to mind is my plant systematics textbook because it was so applied. It was very hands on. […] It was probably my most well-worn book because I was constantly flipping through it to figure out the systems.

Actually, as an undergrad I developed an active learning exercise on the old Mac computers using Hypercard. People would laugh today. It was just a card system [with some functionality] and I created a simulation where you were a beetle and you were trying to shuttle between microhabitats to maintain your body temperature.

Oh, that’s cool!

But it was very primitive. […] It was about putting active learning in course materials. But now when I look at what’s being produced, it’s crazy! There are all kinds of simulations and e-texts and videos. The library of possible materials is just so much larger today. […] YouTube, access to journals, the type of active engagement [possibilities] for students today… it’s revolutionary.

Can you tell me you about the texts and resources you use in your teaching practice? And how do you select them?

I have a Foundations of Science course for non-science students and I also teach a science course for K-12 teachers. For the latter, there are no materials they have to purchase. We purchased textbooks for them which they sign out. We had talked about leasing texts where we would charge students a minimal cost to cover the expenditure over three or four years, so there are no costs, except for one experiential learning exercise where they enact the scientific method. The project is based on cooking, so they’re using the cooking process as science. Should you add milk to eggs to make them fluffier? That’s one of the questions a student had. The student explored the mechanisms that make eggs fluffy and what happens when you add milk, using controls and replication. But when it comes to the actual experiment, they had to pay for the eggs and milk. So depending on the project they choose, it could be higher or lower. My ecology course, on the other hand, used a traditional text and simulation software, so that price tag was about $75.

Would it be possible to offer the ecology course with a $0 price tag and, if so, would that compromise student learning?

Yes, you would be able to do it. It’s a matter of time. To offer the same experience as I have now, I would have to learn how to code the simulations and create the support documents. So it’s not just the simulations, but also the additional texts and support around their use. For example, what happens if there’s a glitch in the technology or another problem with the software on the student’s computer? Currently, the cost for use of the simulation has those supports provided. It’s not that you can’t offer a free version, it’s that in doing so, you’d get an inferior product.

Where do students acquire resources for your courses and do you think they ever encounter difficulties or delays in getting those materials?

With the simulation software, the company sets up a web store for the course, so there shouldn’t be a delay. And we don’t start simulations until the second week to allow them extra time to acquire the materials. With the textbook, I wanted to make sure students could access it on day one, so I showed them where they could find the first chapter for free online. So there was a way of making sure they did have access. I have been intrigued by research that shows that open educational resources (OER) materials are more effective than traditional materials and some of those estimations are based on availability. So from day one, as soon as the student needs it, it’s available.


Just being unprepared for the first day can possibly lead to a lower grade. That provides an interesting argument for using an OER. Or, if you don’t use an OER, how do you compensate for that day-one readiness?

Do you think your ecology students will find the course resources valuable beyond the course itself? And do you think they’ll refer to them again in their degree program or lives?

That’s an interesting question. I think… no. The short answer is no. There are two reasons. First, the simulations are proprietary and so students rent access to them. But I’m not sure how often they would go to them because they’re a source of inquiry, not a source of knowledge. Second, I think that the way we use textbooks and things like that are very different now that digital resources have become the norm. Currently, any questions I have, I don’t consult my textbooks, I consult the internet. If I consult a textbook, it’s usually for an overview, but that’s rare. They used to be reference materials, but now there are other ways.

How do your students feel about your course resources and how or where do they voice their perspectives?

I usually include questions in my teaching evaluations surveys. I’ll ask, ‘Which materials helped you move towards the course objectives?’ I usually get a broad distribution of responses. For ecology there are discussion forums, animations, the textbook, exams, simulations, lectures, and maybe a couple more materials. So traditional things like the lecture and textbook score high. But also discussion forums. And sometimes even exams. But maybe they just think a thing like the textbook is useful when in fact it’s not… it’s hard to say.

Do you discuss with students how and why you select resources and, if so, how does that conversation unfold?

I do! I usually do it as part of the course navigation [or introduction]. With the simulations, there are people that don’t like them and try to get around the course without buying them. I do try to say why it’s important. I understand that there’s a trade-off. That out of necessity sometimes they have to choose not to purchase items.

That reminds me of my freshman year. We had to buy Top Hat just to take attendance. We didn’t use it for anything else and it cost $40! We were mad about it and caused a bit of a ruckus and I don’t think they use it anymore.

I think that’s a really valid point. It’s a touchy subject. Students are already paying tuition. What is covered or not covered by that cost? So, in the case you just mentioned, you were paying to have your attendance taken but that information is not in your interests, so why should you be the one who has to pay for that? There are also test-taking applications where students have to pay to take a test. But why should students have to pay for assessment? When is it ethical to charge students extra for digital learning experiences when traditionally those costs have been covered by tuition?

That’s an interesting question.

It is! And I don’t think we’ve had a systematic discussion about that. Or if there has, it hasn’t included me. But it’s an interesting dilemma

Well, thank you so much for time, Stephen.

My pleasure! Thanks for having me.