The Prof Who Outsourced Her Marking Work to Bangalore

7 04 2010


Lori Whisenant, who teaches business law and ethics at the University of Houston, has outsourced the grading of her students’ papers to a private company in Bangalore. See here. The students get very detailed comments on their essays from Indian writers with postgraduate training.

I have mixed feelings about this idea. It seems to me that the prof who sets the assignment should be the one to mark the assignment. After all, how else can you judge whether the task was an appropriate one that should be included in the course next year? Moreover, some disciplines are very culturally specific. For instance, I throw Hollywood references into my lectures, not Bollywood references. This means that some student essays might not travel that well. (Think gay and lesbian studies). Culture is a de facto trade barrier, which is one of the reasons I’m not too worried that globalization will erode the value of my skills.

That being said, the general concept of outsourcing writing assistance work to a low-cost English-speaking country has some merit, especially when it comes to pre-submission writing assistance as opposed to grading. I should explain that many universities have a place where students can bring drafts of their papers for editorial help before the due date. In some cases, the advice they get is of dubious quality.

I try to give my students detailed feedback on their written work. That’s an important part of my job. But large class sizes are a fact of life and are bound to remain so unless one of the following unpalatable developments takes place: a huge jump in tuition fees to allow for more faculty hiring and smaller classes; keeping the number of professors the same while reducing the proportion of young people who go to university;  a big infusion of government cash to allow for small class sizes; or the division of the existing wage budget into more but smaller salaries (i.e., a paycut for the existing professors).  Don’t hold your breath for any of the above.

Under the current arrangement, there is only so much individualized writing advice a professor can give each student. Moreover, there is much to be desired about the pre-submission assistance many campus writing assistance centres give to students.  Outsourcing the writing assistance work to India seems like a particularly useful idea for universities where it is hard to find qualified workers for on-campus writing centres. In general, good writers want to live in places where there are more opportunities to exercise their skills. This means that the pool of good writers is limited outside of the big cities, especially at universities that lack PhD programs in the humanities.  Emailing the writing assistance work to Bangalore is a superb idea.

In few years, it might be common to overhear students saying that they are planning to Skype their TA in India.



4 responses

7 04 2010

It’s rich that this is an ethics course. The ethics of this seem shaky to me. And what of the 7 TAs who’re not learning much about marking, it seems. As you say, not having your fingers on the pulse of student work is problematic. There can be a great divide between what the professor thinks they’re getting and what’s actually being processed and used.

$12 an assignment, they say. I don’t bet that much of that is getting to the marker, either, but to the company that’s courting this business.

Take the money and put it into more faculty, more TA resources, more sections of the course or maybe a university where you get a better sense of scale in the classroom!

7 04 2010

I don’t see how outsourcing is any more economical than having TAs do the marking! I don’t think I’ve ever made more than $12 per assignment in my TA experience, and I’ve always provided students considerable feedback.

8 04 2010

@Janice. I wonder what the seven TAs are doing instead. I hope that they are doing something that can only be done in the flesh (e.g., moderating a seminar discussion). I suspect that most of the $12 per essay is being gobbled up by the company mentioned in the article. However, it seems to me that you could easily cut out the middleman and pay the $12 directly to the Indian marker. After all, you can buy products on Ebay directly from someone in India.You don’t need to a middleman anymore. As long as they speak English and have access to the net, the middleman is superfluous. The only real service that EduMetry Inc is providing is reputational– they guarantee that the markers are qualified, providing the purchaser with a degree of assurance that you wouldn’t get if you were finding Indian TAs on Craigslist, where people can lie about their qualifications.

If you had a website where students and professors rated their overseas TAs, you wouldn’t need the middleman. (Think of the customer-generated seller ratings on Ebay or the comments section on Tripadvisor). Here is an idea– each campus writing centre could post a list of approved writing TAs in India. To get on the list, the TAs would have to supply their CV, along with the contact details of referees in India. A university employee, say an immigrant from India, would contact the references to check things out. If things checked out, the TA would go on the list. Each time a student used a TAs service, the university would PayPal money to his or her account.

Here is an even better idea—all of the universities in each province or state should pool their resources and create a common database of approved overseas TAs. That way the costs of checking out the references would be spread out over more students.

Let me stress that I am talking about pre-submission writing assistance here. The actual marking should be done by the prof who wrote the assignment.

@Jeremy. That’s great, but at some universities the TAs may be overwhelmed with marking.

8 04 2010

My point is, given the limited financial resources at most Canadian universities, I don’t see the benefit of outsourcing to grad students working as TAs. At schools where TAs hardly make any more than the Indian markers, it seems unlikely that shifting marking duties to India would create opportunities for TAs to do other types of work.

If a department did have the budget to outsource marking and to continue hiring similar numbers of TAs, however, I would welcome the opportunity to do other types of work.

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