Thursday, April 08, 2010


Outsourcing Grading

I have to admit getting a good laugh from this.

Apparently, there's a company that employs people in India with graduate degrees to grade papers for American professors. For twelve bucks a paper, they'll give not just a letter grade, but comments. The idea is to free up faculty to focus on instruction (or, more accurately, research), rather than grading. It also saves the university money, since outsourcing the grading allows you to run classes at much larger sizes.

From the comments to the article, you'd think that this had never been done before. You'd think that professors have always done their own grading, and that the grading was a form of deep examination of each student's soul, resulting in unparalleled insight and bonding.

Um, no. And I have the scantron invoice to prove it.

Those of us who went to grad school in the paper-writing disciplines, such as my own, probably did some time as a T.A. or grader for a large lecture class. (I did both.) Students signed up for a class taught by The Sage On The Stage, only to have their grades determined by twenty-three-year-old grad students who had never taught classes of their own. And this was in an auditorium setting without even an internet hookup; the most advanced technology in the room was a microphone. The university in question was a flagship campus of a state university you've heard of, and that has a respected name in American higher ed. The practice was of long standing, and was generally accepted. Students didn't even expect the Sage to recognize them individually, and he didn't.

As near as I can tell, the breakthrough this company offers isn't the separation of grading from teaching, since that has been standard practice at the university level for decades. Nor is the breakthrough the new involvement on non-Americans; anyone who has spent any time on a major public university campus lately can attest that foreign students are nothing new. No, the only real change here is location. Instead of paying local grad students to do the scut work, now we can use email attachments to pay grad students in India to do the scut work.

Of course, one could always object that grading shouldn't be considered scut work, that it should be located at the core of the teaching enterprise. But at the university level, that ship sailed decades ago. Bringing it up now seems a day late and a dollar short.

By contrast, at my cc, we cap English classes in the low twenties, and social science classes in the low thirties. Professors do their own grading. And we charge less. Not coincidentally, the success rates of our grads who transfer to the state university is actually higher than that university's 'native' freshmen. As a result, our prestige is...wait for it...lower.

(Bang head against table here.)

If you're willing to grant the existence of certain basic irrationalities, though, the whole email-your-paper-to-India scheme could actually offer some benefits.

For one, it eliminates the potential conflict of interest when professors do their own grading, and are judged -- one way or another -- by pass rates. Teaching to an external standard can change the role of the teacher from 'judge' to 'coach,' with beneficial results. External exams have long existed in some fields -- Nursing and law come to mind -- and they can serve as reality checks on grade inflation. 'Blind' external graders can also put to rest the usual charges of race/gender/personality bias in grading, since someone in Bangalore reading essay 54789 has no flippin' idea who you are.

For another, though -- and I actually like this one a lot -- it offers the very real possibility of finally starting to shrink graduate admissions in badly-flooded fields. I've heard of graduate programs trying to do the right thing by restricting admissions for a year or two, only to discover abruptly that they need the cheap labor. So they open the floodgates again, and the reserve army of the overcredentialed just keeps getting bigger. But if they don't actually need as many T.A.'s or graders, they can actually reduce admissions and keep them down. If we're ever going to get a handle on the exploitation of adjuncts, we simply have to start reducing the supply. Until now, there often didn't seem a realistic way to do that; now there is.

(Of course, one could object that this is simply displacing our problem onto India. But I'm willing to let India worry about that.)

I don't buy the 'quality' argument against it, either. If radiologists in India can read images, and programmers in India can work on developing and fixing incredibly sophisticated software, then surely some smart folks in India can handle some freshman comp papers. Seriously. Other information-based industries have endured outsourcing without the quality of the work suffering. Given the inarguable indifference with which our large universities have handled undergraduate teaching for so long, to suddenly get huffy and puffy about standards is disingenuous at best.

The simple truth of the matter is that universities have engaged in a bait-and-switch with intro undergraduate classes for a long time, and have built an entire economic model on it. This may be a case in which following the model to its logical conclusion actually prompts looking more closely at the entire enterprise, which strikes me as a good idea. In the meantime, we'll keep running small classes with real faculty who actually do bond with their students, and doing it at a fraction of the cost. If folks would sneer at us a bit less, I'd be much obliged.

See more at Ed Sector's blog. I think that despite the rosy view of NCAT at Ed Sector, there might be some useful ways to think about this, essentially as institutionalized private tutoring. As I noted over there, in-house arrangements mean that the academics are in charge, very different from a written contractual arrangement (or a mass service). But break the model away from privatization, and it suggests interesting possibilities.
"I don't buy the 'quality' argument against it, either. If radiologists in India can read images, and programmers in India can work on developing and fixing incredibly sophisticated software, then surely some smart folks in India can handle some freshman comp papers."

i will digress from the subject here, because this made me cringe. i work in the software industry, and the industry is finally learning that [most] programmers in India are not of the same quality as elsewhere. a lot of companies who have set up [software] shops in India are moving them back.

i am by no means saying that nothing of quality is a result from Indian labor, but the quality of commercial code produced there is sub-par, and will cost any company extra money if they are trying to ship a bonafide product.

you get what you pay for. there is a reason that software shops in the US, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, and Canada are doing so well, and that is because their engineering education is far superior when it comes to learning how to code.

where i work, we have 2 Indian coders, and they are generally thought of as the bottom-rung programmers. they should be seasoned veterans and should be able to do just about anything, but even our interns and new-hires can produce work that is ten-fold higher quality. the difference between them and what I would consider the other 2-3 worst programmers (Americans) is that the American ones have the knowledge and capabilities, but they are just lazy (which is the 'American problem'). laziness can be managed and monitored. the inability to conceptualize and understand the task at hand (and the solution needed) is infinitely worse. ideally, we would get rid of them all and get better workers (by all, I mean the bottom 4-5 workers), but as you know, management lacks balls.

i know the subject is taboo, and my post may come across as racist, but it has nothing to do with race (the actual 'make-up' of the people of India). it has to do with the quality of engineering education that exists there, versus what you can find here. i dont know how this relates to grading papers, but i dont think the software industry is a good metric to compare.
If they're paying $12 a paper, they're also paying significantly more than they would in the US for TAs or Adjuncts. Heck, or me. :(
Right now, my university is attempting to raise caps (with, I expect, a stern look at English since their first year courses are capped at similar levels to yours and their mid-level courses at 40) as a way of dealing with the financial pressures. Having taught writing intensive courses with one TA (game, but only so much you can ask them to do at 10hours/week), I know the hell it is with more than a hundred in your class. But the economics of this sound suspect to me -- how can universities claim that these kind of courses (the writing courses they're highlighting are humanities/philosophy type topics, even when they're served up in the business school curriculum) are bankrupting them when they find a way to pay a company $12/paper to secure markers for assignments?

Also, a course on ethics as the showpiece for this project in the "Chronicle"? Tackle that as a question, why don't they? "Your coursework is being marked by a M.A. graduate overseas at a very small piecework sum while the company charges the university $12/paper for their service. Discuss."
12 bucks a paper! Why outsource to India, let the current glut of jobless PhDs do it - that's higher pay than adjuncting.
A couple of comments. What's a TA (joke)?

In 37 years of teaching I have always graded my own papers, and it is the aspect of my job I like least. (Oddly, I rather enjoy writing exams.) This semester, I have 100+ students (total) in two sections of intro econ, and I can think of no way to give essay exams, simply because of the time it takes to grade the damned things. So outsourcing the grading sounds like a fine idea to me. Let's see...100 students, three exams, $12 per exam graded...I make that $3600 for the grading...not too bad.

But there's no way my institution can afford that. Frankly, I'm surprised any institution thinks it can afford that.

The other thing I suspect is not dealt with much (if at all--I have not read the original piece) is the need for the faculty whose grading is outsourced to provide a guide to what is "correct" (easier in some disciplines than in others; what, for example, is the "correct" interpretation of the depiction of gender roles in "The Taming of the Shrew"?) and an entire grading rubric for each exam. This is something a lot of people do not do now, and they might, indeed, find it easier simply to grade the tests than do so.

On a different note, DD, I'm please that your transfers do as well as they do. I wish the same could be said for our transfers from our local CC...I don't see many of them, but I do know that our accounting faculty continually complains about the abysmal performacne of transfers from the CC in their intermediate accounting class. You deserve a higher reputation and more prestige...that is not uniformly true.
I do not like grading papers (I'm an adjunct) but hell, for $12 a paper? Ship me some more!! I know a million un and under-employed Ph.Ds who would love the chance to grade papers for $12!!

Also agree with Okie Floyd, my spouse is in IT for a big multinational. Five years ago much of the coding was outsourced, now they have brought much of it back to the US.
Why stop at grading? Seems to me we could out-source all internet courses to India and reap a tremendous profit. At last count, India had more geniuses than we had people...
I have to admit that my first reaction was, "this can't be real", but you do a great job of describing how, regardless of one's personal opinion on the practice, it's a logical extension of some colleges' current grading practices (i.e., the use of TAs) and the current outsourcing of work done in so many other industries.

For what it's worth, I feel your pain with regard to the unfairly negative perception of community colleges that seems way too prevalent in academic circles and the general populace. I got my start working at a community college, and though I must admit that I used to be one of those people who used to look down on community colleges and the students who attend them, my entire perspective shifted. I now have nothing but enormous respect for community colleges, their faculty and administration, and the many, many students who choose for many diverse reasons to attend them. I can think of no other type of institution that has as broad of a mandate to serve as diverse of a student population with as diverse of program offerings and with as limited support.
$12/paper! Hmmm. I think I'm currently doing it for about a $2/paper. Maybe I should have gone to grad school in India?!?
The learning model is different in the countries mentioned, the English is different. I'm not opposed to the outsourcing of grades, but I'll be pretty surprised if the results are better than having your own people to do the work.
" way to improve the writing skills of undergraduates is to make them write more."

Well, sure. But to then have their writing critiqued by people who a) are not native English speakers, and b) have been educated in a very different dialect of English, is likely to produce disappointing results.

Outsourcing grading overseas sounds quite reasonable for concrete subjects such as math and science, though.
It would seem prudent to read the article before making some of these idiot comments. The course that is the focus of the article is a business school course, not English composition 101, and the goal of the course appears to be the instruction of business law and ethics (a challenge in itself since these could easily be two separate courses).

Often in business schools, courses are tagged as "writing in the discipline", indicating that the students get more opportunities to write and get feedback on their writing (usually because the English composition 101 courses don't do an effective job, and prospective employers ask business schools to find ways to improve the writing of business school grads).

Since the course is "business law and ethics" and is taught by a lawyer, the decision to outsource the feedback for the "writing in the discipline" component of the course seems, not only novel, but quite effective in meeting the varied goals of the course.

But let's pay no attention to the facts, let's just bemoan the "outsourcing of grading" and the demise of higher education in the U.S. - as it is easier than using your brain.
givemeabreak--I see you posted this exact same comment at the tail end of the comment section in the original Chronicle article. See the responses to your first posting of this comment for relevant answers.
The entire idea is ridiculous on so many levels. Alot of medical transcription is sent there and I sometimes assist a family member proofread them and there are many mistakes, which I think is not worth the money. The english is different as well.

The person grading would have to be well-versed in the subject in order to grade. How can a person educated in India grade an American business law paper? There are so many nuances that I fear the grading will be grade right and wrong only. I think students would be up in arms if they were aware of this and deans would be bombarded with students and parents fighting about grades.

Why not just get rid of papers and have scantron exams only to save money. If schools want students to improve writing skills they need smaller classes and more professor guidance rather than outsourcing education in any form.
At least the a TA or grad student learn something by grading papers and paying a TA $10 an hour is cheaper than outsourcing.
I'm a tenured CC philosophy prof. My 5/5 load and high course caps mean I might have 250 students in a semester. The only courses I don't assign papers for are my logic courses -- so, I've become a very fast reader/grader.

I'd love $12 per paper -- I could make a boatload of money. With extensive comments, it might take me 15 minutes for a paper (once I get started -- the first few are slower). I'd love a part-time job that pays me $48/hour.

Hubby is a former political science prof now a 1L-- so, by now he's probably faster... sign him up and he'd probably get up to $60.00 in some hours.. much better than the work study wages he gets for being an RA or editing their journal...
An alternative to outsourcing grading is to provide professors with tools (and training) to help them to grade papers more effectively while also providing detailed and useful feedback to students. I ended up creating an add-in to Word that allows me to easily reuse and manage comment banks and you can see a demo at

Peter Evans
Not a big surprise. Rene Khator, University of Houston chancellor, is an Indian descent. $12 per paper sounds like a lot of money for an Indian enterprise. I would not be surprised if some of the money goes to her friends and relatives.
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