Saturday, April 10, 2010

Remote Grading

Reading this article about American universities outsourcing the business of grading the work of students to call centers in India left me rather unsettled.When applied to education, the implications of outsourcing can be quite insidious - it is amazing that the students are not up in arms protesting. They are paying a huge sum of money for the privilege of being educated in an American university by the professors who physically teach them there. The expectation should be that they get what they are paying for – the professor’s time and attention.

The notion that a real TA can be swapped out with a virtual TA because the two are not that different is wrong in more ways than I can count. However, that is probably the first argument the proponents of this system will make.One might argue, a student could likewise outsource their “monotonous” assignments and free up time to gain real world experience (which is what their future livelihood will depend on) and reduce their student loan burden while they are at it. In this surreal (though not entirely far-fetched scenario), a virtual TA would be grading the work of a virtual student while the real professor and student are off doing “more important” work to advance their respective prospects in life. If this is not a travesty of the goals of instruction and education, I don’t know what is.

Given the established precedent in the outsourcing business, it is only a matter of time before virtual TA outfits up their game and start to provide higher end, value added service. Just like information technology body shops went from being data entry and back office process automation providers to actual product development over time, a virtual TA in due season will be ready to stand in for the professor. The logic may be that doing so frees up the "real" professor’s time to do valuable research while the drone job of teaching is left to industry "experts". Someone will no doubt come up with the altogether specious case for this arrangement being a win-win formula for everyone involved in it.

From an American student’s standpoint, it would make a lot more economic sense for them to get their education in Asia where their tuition dollars would go a lot further. There is no sense in paying an American tuition to have their work graded (and in due course have instruction provided) in Asia. As for the universities – if this is the way things are headed, there will be precious little to tell them apart form a corporation whose overriding purpose is to turn in a profit for its share holders.

Education is already far more commoditized than it should be and this is yet another step down that slippery slope. If the value of a formal education and everything it entails is devalued enough, an astute student may be persuaded to entirely bypass the system and the pedagogic instructional process. They can just as well be self-taught and take the appropriate assessments to ensure they meet or exceed standards. Depending on their performance, they can compete for degrees to be granted from an university of their choice - that would be a nice way to monetize the brand equity of the leading universities. I feel sorry for kids who will be ready for college ten to twenty years out because close to nothing will remain sarosacnt about the hallowed centers of higher learning by that time.


Anonymous said...

" Virtual-TA suggests to potential clients that each graded assignment will cost $12 per student."

I think outsourcing is not cheap in this case. Most TA's get paid $8/hour for their grading work. So if a US TA can grade assignment in 1.5 hours, their is no cost advantage.
The primary advantage in this case is the detailed feedback received which is value based outsourcing and not cost based.

bard said...

I hadn't heard this was happening. What will we not allow to happen for money? The learning not only comes from receiving the grade but in having access to the person who marked it - preferably in person - so that if you have any questions you can have them answered. The real learning may actually come in the follow up. Very sad.

Heartcrossings said...

Anon - As volumes pick up, the costs will definitely go down. Virtual-TA will get more competition and so on. As for the detailed feedback - it seems to me that it would be of very little value coming from someone who has no direct contact with the student.All in all, this sounds like scam.

Bard - I always dreamed of going back to school here in the US. If this is what I get for my trouble, I may not bother to. Sadder for kids who will have no choice but to attend university here, drown in student loan debt and then have this in return.