Arizona State students demand investigation into Cengage tech partnership

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Controversy surrounding Arizona State University’s (ASU) partnership with digital learning and online publisher, Cengage, has angered students.

By U2B Staff 

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Controversy surrounding Arizona State University’s (ASU) partnership with digital learning and online publisher, Cengage, has angered students and raised questions about the nature of all university learning technology agreements.

Rogue ASU economics professor Brian Goegan was the first to highlight issues with an agreement that he believed short-changed students and placed undue pressure on staff to hit fail quotas when marking.

Goegan highlighted the unethical policies in an email to students on April 18, which was later posted to Reddit. In the email, Goegan claimed the university’s deal with Cengage required students pay for a subscription to submit assignments and that the company would pay ASU a grant in exchange for the use of their online learning portal, MindTap.

The email also exposed a policy that Goegan says required economics professors to fail “at least 30%” of students in three modules.

“We were told that we needed to set a baseline against which the Provost’s project could be compared,” Goegan wrote. “For many instructors, this meant setting students up to fail so it could seem like the Provost swooped in and fixed a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The university strongly denied these allegations in a statement released Wednesday. In it, ASU flatly dismissed the accusation that professors are required to fail a quota of students.

The accusations of receiving money from the online publisher, however, have proven more suspect and left the university trying – and failing – to explain itself adequately.

Despite initially denying the charge, the university was forced to reissue the statement to clarify after a contract was obtained by The Arizona Republic detailing the arrangement between the two parties.

Initial claims ASU had not received a “dime” from Cengage proved false. The contract shows both parties shared money from fees paid by students for subscriptions to a package deal including the economic textbook and access to MindTap – the product Goegan claimed was needed for students to submit homework.

The contract stipulated for the first year – from spring 2017 to spring 2018 – the university would keep US$21 of the US$100 purchase price. After this period, the amount kept by ASU dropped to US$1.

While the agreement does not mention a grant, as Goegan stated, the exchange of money has many students questioning the ethics of the academic department.

Following Geogan’s email and the university’s lacking response, ASU’s undergraduate student government senate passed a resolution calling on the Office of the University Provost to hire an external investigator to assess the claims of unethical conduct.

The controversy highlights what is likely to become a growing concern in the United States as more and more colleges turn to private partnerships to meet demands.

A recent study from The Chronicle of Higher Education and the P3-Edu conference, found the large majority – 83 percent – of university leaders are increasing partnerships with private firms. Another P3-Edu report points out that such agreements are becoming more prevalent as universities face intense financial pressure, especially in a period of wavering enrolment and budget crunches.

Online education and online programme management are likely to be big areas for this expansion with thousands of colleges already signing up to these virtual platforms. Arizona State’s current predicament must be heeded as a warning of the potential financial and ethical pitfalls of such agreements.