Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Outsourcing Grading

This seems like a terrible idea:

[Lori Whisenant's] seven teaching assistants, some of whom did not have much experience, couldn’t deliver. Their workload was staggering: About 1,000 juniors and seniors enroll in the course each year. “Our graders were great,” she said, “but they were not experts in providing feedback.”

That shortcoming led Ms. Whisenant, director of business law and ethics studies at Houston, to a novel solution last fall. She outsourced assignment grading to a company whose employees are mostly in Asia.

Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc., took over. The goal of the service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task — and even, the company says, to do it better than T.A.’s can.

There are several obvious immediate objections that seem to come up here. First of all, this seems exploitative. Graduate assistants are usually very poorly paid, yet even so, I wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that those in India were paid even less for this work. Secondly, I can't see how outsourcing anything else to India is going to help anybody; true, the assistant positions haven't been eliminated (though given the way university administrations are slashing funding to feed their bulked up administrative arms, I wouldn't be surprised if that were an outcome), but I fail to see why this is even remotely useful. Yes, the students have less work to do, but why not offer more funding to the department to fund more students who could assist the professor in this? Oh, right - the administrators are swallowing that money. And to be clear, I'm not suggesting exploiting student labor (hell, I'm a student laborer myself right now), but additional positions could simultaneously fund more students through graduate school, and leave all the students with a reasonable workload.

And it's the value of that workload that I think is what really bothers me here. Look, very few people love grading, but it's a valuable exercise for all parties involved. In terms of the students who take exams and/or write papers, grading is perhaps one of the most fertile ways to aid students' learning - if you grade with good insights regarding how to improve their work, you're not just improving their grades for the semester; you're improving the ways they think critically, thus preparing them for the world well beyond your own class (or even university). Critical thinking is one of the most important, most misunderstood, and most valuable things that students take from universities; high schools, with their standardized tests and limits imposed by policies like No Child Left Behind, certainly aren't able to offer a majority of students that kind of learning experience. At least in my opinion, it is an essential part of what students take away from universities.

And, as teaching assistants, it is an invaluable experience for the graduate students, as it helps them learn and refine how to help their own students in learning. Whisenant comments that her assistants "were not experts in providing feedback." Not to put too fine a point on it, but how in the hell does she expect them to learn how to provide feedback if their grading assignments are being shipped overseas? Learning how to assign feedback is as much a trial-and-error process for the grader as exams and writing papers are for students; over time, you learn which methods are useful for different types of students, which methods you prefer, which you are good at, etc. If the professor is expecting perfect feedback from graduate assistants, that professor has completely lost touch with the practical way that graduate school (which is, after all, an extended learning process in many ways) functions. You aren't solving the problem of addressing how to offer feedback by denying the students any chance; you're worsening the problem.

Certainly, I sympathize with the students' workload; I agree that having an average of 143 exams to grade per assistant is certainly overwhelming and unfair. But there are many solutions to this issue, and outsourcing the work to Asia seems about one of the worst solutions possible, for the students, for the assistants, and for the university itself as an institution.