The danger of monetizing educational tools

a picture of a stacks of books
(Photo courtesy of Romina BM via Unsplash)

It finally happened. Quizlet has at last succumbed to the recent coronavirus-induced inflation, proving that students might not be on the forefront of the for-profit company’s mind. The study-help website recently changed its settings so that students who want to study their own flashcard sets can only do so for up to five rounds of certain practice tabs like “Learn” and “Test” — then they have to upgrade to Quizlet Plus. 

Although there are more equivalent substitutes emerging every day, Quizlet has routinely been one of the most popular online learning tools the web has to offer, with two in three American high schools and around 60 million monthly learners utilizing the site. Not only are the graphics and design smooth for mobile and website usage, but Quizlet was one of the pioneers of implementing interactive learning and Rote Memorization — a repetition and customization based learning method that has been greatly successful students of all ages.

So, how much is the upcharge? Resources that were once free are now behind a $35.99 per year subscription (or $7.99 per month for those who don’t want to commit to a full year), which is an incredulous jump and an even more outrageous ask for students who likely don’t have an extra $36 to spend on a whim just to study. 

It’s understandable that the company has to make money, of course, but it’s important to address the dangers that come with asking students to cough up such an amount in order to learn. Students of lower incomes already face discrepancies.

 “[Low-income students] often have fewer resources at home to complete homework, study or engage in activities that [help] equip them for success during the school day,” according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. 

Paywalls such as the one implemented by Quizlet are just another obstacle that stresses financial discrepancies between students. As the gap between incomes grows with each passing year, inconvenience and extra hoops only further separate these groups.

Maybe there are more affordable alternatives to Quizlet — paper flashcards exist, as well as free downloadable practice exams that are randomly dispersed online. But even putting low-income students in a more time-consuming and cumbersome situation elevates this aforementioned gap. It’s inconsistencies like these that hurt the educational and growth processes that are necessary to grant students from less-privileged backgrounds the ability to succeed at levels closer to their wealthier peers. 

Unfortunately, it isn’t just Quizlet that has been able to force the hand of students. Textbook companies have been upping the price of their textbooks for years, and the current prices for these books can be absolutely outrageous. On average, textbook companies raise the price of their copies an average of 12% with each new edition, resulting in new books costing an average of $80 to $150 today. A student could be taking five classes or more, and each one of these could have more than one required textbook. 

There are likely used copies for sale online, but, again, there are great discrepancies in the quality of information or the way in which the information is presented. As many students might be able to attest, used textbooks are never as quality as the new ones. Pages could be missing, notes could be penciled in the pages or wrong answers could even be scribbled in the margins. These cheaper versions may take longer to arrive (as opposed to buying or renting immediately from the bookstore), quite literally putting students behind. 

I am extremely privileged as I’ve been able to (although begrudgingly), pay the exorbitant fee attached to new books or educational websites (I need Quizlet Plus for my Korean class; I can’t make and learn 250 vocabulary terms without smooth technology). But I do realize that this isn’t a luxury that everyone can afford — and it shouldn’t be a luxury at all. I encourage my fellow students to allow their classmates to use their paid-for resources, to let them borrow the textbooks that they bought or let a friend use their laptop for an hour so they can study for their upcoming exam. If we can’t get big corporations to change their money-hoarding, we can at least try to help our fellow Trojans out.