Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of California community college students take online classes that require them to pay an access fee to a commercial publisher on top of their registration fee for the course.
Students have complained that this practice forces them to pay twice for the same course and violates the state's college fee law because they can't download, print or keep the electronic texts and materials they've paid for. Some say they are not aware of the mandatory fee until after they've signed up for a class.
Now, rather than recommend the fee be halted or refunded, a state task force studying the issue wants to change the law to specifically allow such online fees. The college system's Board of Governors can change Title 5 governing college fees without Legislative approval.
The debate over appropriate fees for online courses comes as more colleges are relying on off-the-shelf, Web-based classes from publishers that create - and own- the curriculum.
"Instructional delivery systems have changed, so we're making sure that our language is changed," said Barry Russell, vice chancellor of academic affairs with the college chancellor's office in Sacramento, which oversees the state's 112 community colleges.
Task force members
Russell served on the 31-member task force, which met Monday. It included nine vendors representing five publishers that sell online courses, eight faculty members, a handful of college experts in online education, top brass from the college system and one student.
The chancellor's office created the Instructional Materials Fees Task Force last month in response to a Chronicle story about student anger over a $78 fee for an online class at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. Students had to pay the mandatory fee to a publisher, Pearson, on top of their $85 registration fee.
"This is a matter that needs to be settled in court - it's illegal," said Fred Rassaii, a Foothill student who complained to campus administrators in April. They rejected his complaint.
"You could swallow the fee if it went to the state, but it's going to private corporations," he said.
Rassaii and others say it's wrong that students have no choice but to pay the fee if they want to take the class. The fee has been compared to the cost of a textbook. But Rassaii said students can choose whether to buy a book, yet are barred from the course if they don't pay the publisher. Even in traditional classrooms, some instructors now require students to do homework online, which can require a fee to an online publisher. Again, students have no choice.
"The homework is worth 20 percent of your grade," Rassaii said.
Same as a workbook
Shaine Johnson, the only student on the task force, said the group concluded that what students get for the fee is comparable to buying a workbook that they use once.
"The technology advanced faster than the law," said Johnson, a student at Los Rios Community College in Sacramento. He is interning at the chancellor's office and was tapped for the task force.
Johnson said that when students register at Los Rios, extra charges are clearly noted.
Told that Foothill students felt blindsided by the fees, he said students should have all the fee information up front.
Kevin Feliciano, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges and a student at Ohlone College in Fremont, said too many students are unaware of extra fees.
"The true cost of an education should be transparent, honest and not done to line the pockets of textbook publishers," he said, adding that the student government will consider a resolution on the fees at its meeting in September.
Meanwhile, the plan to change the law and allow the fee is not yet a done deal.
Once a recommendation is finalized, Chancellor Jack Scott will review it before sending it to the Consultation Council, an advisory board of faculty, staff and others. After that, the Board of Governors will take the final vote.