I stole the link in this post from my friend and colleague Sascha Engel’s Facebook, so I first want to give credit where credit is due. But this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website discusses the recent phenomenon of “outsourced grading.” Basically, outsourced grading is exactly what it sounds like: professors and teaching assistants upload student’s papers to the web and send them to a private company (based in India) for grading. EduMetry Inc., the parent company, says “the goal of their Virtual-TA service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task—and even to do it better than TA’s can.”
The article stopped me dead in my tracks. On one hand, I have never even thought of such a service–hats off to the capitalist who saw the opening in the market. And on the other hand, I thought, how convenient. As a doctoral student and the teacher of record for a modern American history survey, I am currently swamped with grading my student’s book reports, writing their final exam, and writing research/historiographical term papers for the courses that I myself am enrolled in–understandably, I really wish I could outsource those book reports. But almost immediately–perhaps on a third hand?–I started thinking about the pitfalls of this service. EduMetry, according to the article, actually does foster some communication between the teachers and the graders, but how well can graders in India–that have never met the professor face to face, actually provide in-depth feedback for the students? Sure, they may have the time to point out grammatical and spelling errors that rushed professors often miss, but it is the content that is important–at least in my classroom. Maybe math and business classes would be different. Additionally, EduMetry claims that all of their graders have advanced degrees, at least a Masters. This, quite evidently, is wide-open for exploitation. Honestly, they could just be lying. I mean is anyone going to check the credentials of the graders? Is it really even possibly? But also, higher education in India, outside of the top caste, is questionable at best. This Forbes article highlights some of those points: faculty shortages at public universities, out-of-date materials, and questionably mastery of basic subjects by graduates. So, in short, I don’t trust EduMetry to grade my student’s papers.
There is something else that is very unsettling about this. I asked myself, as did Sascha, are we–professors, teachers, assistants–becoming obsolete. To me, this just appears as another means that private enterprise, along with neoliberal economic policies, are encroaching on the public university system. Undoubtedly, outsourcing grading is not as serious as the budget cuts and hyper-competitive university management paradigms that are being increasingly called for by conservative lawmakers, but it is connected in a way. As tenure track positions become harder to find, entire departments get cut, and an ever-growing demand for cheaper adjunct professors, this seems to be only one more step in the direction of a “more efficient,” business-minded system of higher education. If college courses continue to be increasingly relegated to online “classrooms” and a class of underpaid adjuncts (moderators) that are spread thin as it is, and now the grading of written papers (an intimate medium between professor and student that is meant to not only better writing practiced but provide insight into complex issues and foster the development of the student), then what will happen to traditional education? Call me outdated or idealistic if you will, but, to me, the mission of the American college/university was, and is, to develop civic virtue, foster diversity and interaction, and to confront tough questions that the business sector avoids. How can this be accomplished if the distance between professor and student continues to expand on the heels of increased classroom mediation by technology and privatized services? I, for one, do not want someone else doing my job for me, no matter how stressful it is to make sure I get my student’s book reports graded in a reasonable amount of time. If this trend continues, then I may not have a job for much longer.