Monday, November 29, 2021

'More than D2L': Reactions to third-party learning platforms

September 16, 2020
Illustration by Daena Faustino
Illustration by Daena Faustino —

As Michigan State University adjusts to predominantly online learning, many professors are requiring students to purchase access to third-party platforms to help their classes run smoothly. This has caused some students to raise the question: Why isn’t D2L enough?

In July 2012, MSU chose Desire2Learn, or D2L, as its learning management system. D2L is free to use for all students, faculty and staff. It is most often used to give students access to course materials, allow for collaboration on discussion posts and is where most assignments are to be submitted. 

In recent years, many professors have started requiring students to purchase access to third-party platforms for their classes. The most common of these platforms include Top Hat, Packback, LaunchPad and WebWork. 

Lynnette King, assistant anthropology professor, is predominantly teaching  integrative social science, or ISS, courses this year. She uses multiple third-party platforms outside of D2L including Top Hat, Slate and Packback. 

King has used Top Hat for three years. MSU has also been partnered with Top Hat since 2016. Top Hat can be used for a wide range of things from taking attendance to administering tests and exams.Since she started at her position with ISS and the Anthropology Department, she has never had to rely on D2L.

“I’ve never [had to] relied on D2L,” King said. “I rely on it for the final grade book to push to the registrar’s office. Only since we went online do I put my quizzes and exams in there. Before this moment, even my quizzes and exams I put through Top Hat.”

The biggest concern from students is cost. 

World politics junior Shelby Auterman expressed her anger with the price of multiple platforms. 

“It makes absolutely zero sense that we have to pay hundreds of extra dollars for all these additional services when last time I checked, MSU literally has D2L,” Auterman said in a Facebook comment. “What’s the point of forcing students to pay for these extremely unnecessary services when we have one that works just fine already? I believe MSU should make it mandatory for professors to use D2L instead of creating more anxiety and debt for students by using third-party applications.”

Physiology junior Jessica Starnes believes that with how much students pay for tuition, professors should use D2L, the free platform provided for all students. 

“What makes me angry is that it’s kind of insulting to pay what we already pay in tuition yearly and housing and then on top of that we have to pay for either our attendance and or our homework,” Starnes said in a Facebook comment.

For interdisciplinary social science junior Kristy Kontowsky, the third-party platforms seem to be a barrier for some people, but in many cases are completely unavoidable. 

“The third-party sites … are just kind of another financial barrier for us to leap over because if you don’t buy it you can’t turn in your homework and that’s your entire grade,” Kontowsky said. “That also kind of discriminates against people who come from a lower economic status or people from poorer areas of Michigan. You can’t assume everyone comes from the same background.”

King realizes that these third-party platforms may cause a financial burden on students, but also wants students to recognize that Top Hat and her required books are less than the book she used to order..

“MSU just made a three-year contract with Packback so it’s free for all students and all faculty," King said. "I use Top Hat and the book I wrote and the cost of the subscription is less money than the book I used to order.”

For business junior Salman Osmani, the problem with third-party platforms is less about the financial burden and more about the inconvenience of having to use multiple platforms for his classes. 

“I didn’t really like the idea at first but now more professors are doing it, so it’s not as inconvenient because it’s a one-time payment for multiple classes,” Osmani said. “But it’s kind of inconvenient to have to use another platform when you can use D2L. Like for Packback, I think it’s more discussion questions and there is a discussion section on the D2L website we have, so it seems kind of useless to have to go to Packback and post it there when you could just do it from D2L.”

Business junior Rebecca Prater also expressed her concern that  multiple platforms can cause extra confusion for students. 

Another reason King uses third-party platforms is that she has experienced technical issues with D2L in the past. The task of fixing technical issues was a long process that took time away from other prep work she could have been doing for her classes. With the challenge of the pandemic, new and useful features have been added to D2L will bring value to the other platforms she uses.

“The process of networking and figuring out what went wrong took four hours of my time … and our tech team is awesome but to me, it’s [D2L] not user friendly,” King said.

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Now that MSU has transitioned online, technical problems within D2L have popped up daily for students.

“I think that MSU has the resources to put more money into D2L to give it better options and reliability,” Kontowsky said.

King said she also believes that students have become bored with D2L, as they have with other technology, like iClickers, in the past. 

King said while she would not want to, she could make it through a semester with only D2L. Though, she does not think it would be beneficial for her or her students. 

“I think it’s totally boring, but yeah I could do it. If they told me I had to do it I could do it. It has everything there and they did improve it a little bit,” King said.

This article is part of our Living a Remote Life print edition. View the entire issue here.

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