- An external review found no evidence Arizona State University used Cengage's adaptive learning courseware in exchange for a grant, or that the department required instructors to fail 30% of students to make the technology look better by comparison.
- Ruth McGregor, former chief justice of Arizona's Supreme Court, was called in to do the review in response to criticism of the university's relationship with the Cengage and its requirement that two economics courses use a bundled e-textbook and digital learning platform from the course materials provider.
- The dispute draws attention to how partnerships to implement learning technology affect college costs, and McGregor's report shows how some have worked at Arizona State.
McGregor wrote that Arizona State's contract with Cengage had "similar provisions" to other courseware agreements. She noted a contract signed in 2015 with Cengage for an adaptive learning course in psychology that gave Arizona State $25 of a $100 student fee during the first year and $5 each year after.
In another agreement, course provider CogBooks paid the university $149,732.60 for its course development services through a grant secured in partnership with Arizona State.
The contract with Cengage for the economics courses, signed in 2016, gives Arizona State $21 of a $100 student fee in the first year and $1 each year after. If the courses are licensed to other institutions, the university gets between 2% and 5% of revenue. Students in the non-adaptive version of the course pay Cengage a discounted rate to access the materials.
Cengage handles the capital costs of deployment, including software and customer service, while Arizona State is responsible for instructional design and related expertise.
McGregor wrote that the psychology course had a "similar" revenue share, and that the agreements for the economics courses are "not unusual and acknowledge the contributions of each party."
The report was commissioned in response to allegations earlier this year by a professor, Brian Goegan, that the university received a hefty grant from Cengage to implement the technology and that students were effectively forced to pay to submit their homework.
McGregor's report largely dismisses those complaints. She based her report on a review of contracts between Arizona State and Cengage, as well as other providers, and interviews with select students, administrators and faculty, including Goegan.
Another professor echoed Goegan's concerns, saying professors should have a choice in whether to use the platform. Others said its features, such as immediate feedback for students and the ability to address weaknesses, are valuable and cannot be sufficiently replicated through the learning management system — a point Goegen argued.
"While university faculty no doubt can and do disagree about when and to what degree an individual can govern the choice of teaching materials, the issue seems one of teaching approach rather than one of ethics or morality," McGregor wrote.
Cengage declined to comment on the report, with a spokesperson saying that the "investigation speaks for itself." Arizona State did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Goegan told The Arizona Republic that he was "disappointed" with the report and that it didn't fully address his allegations. The publication noted Goegan objected more broadly to the department's requirement to use a Cengage textbook because he used his own materials for the class.
The debate draws attention to institutions' growing interest in outsourcing elements of online learning and student success and their impact on affordability. In a recent survey of 249 college leaders, 42% saw an opportunity to partner with a private firm to expand their online programs and 31% for predictive analytics.