April 5, 2010

Outsourcing Grading

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There are many large lecture classes at Cornell that require a lot of written work as part of the course assignments. Many professors feel that giving feedback on written papers is more constructive than giving multiple exams each semester. With class sizes increasing, this means that a lot of words are written per class section. If the grading load gets to be too much for professors, how is it possible to complete everything on time? Although TAs are helpful, many are unqualified. Also, there are usually not enough TAs per class section to efficiently complete all of the grading. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a solution to the problem.

The solution comes in the form of a company called Virtual-TA, which helps professors grade assignments when there is too much work and not enough time. Virtual-TA follows the recent trend of American businesses, with most of the employees based in Asia. The “virtual TAs” use e-mail to communicate with professors and to deliver graded coursework. All of the employees are advertised as having advanced degrees. It is often more efficient for professors to outsource grading to the company because the employees do not have other schoolwork to do, unlike actual TAs who are present in the classroom. With some work outsourced, professors can focus on helping students and focus more on their own work, such as on doing research at the university.

Obviously, Virtual-TA is very controversial. Many universities are extremely uncertain about sending work to be graded overseas. The company will not comment on how many universities use the service. However, the company tries to put universities at ease by providing them with a trial period and explaining what each employee must go through in order to begin working at the company. TAs are trained to grade in exactly the way that the professor would grade, using the same rubrics and comment styles. The TAs only have direct contact with the professor, who can make changes to the comments before distributing the assignments back to students. The assignments are always returned in a timely fashion, which has been shown to strengthen learning. However, the lack of direct communication between graders and students has been shown as a weakness. The fact that the Virtual TAs are not present during class discussions means they may not understand some of the points that the student brings up in the paper. If professors quickly glance at the comments or choose not to read them at all, this may hinder the student’s grade in a way that is not constructive to future learning.

Virtual-TA could be a huge help to overwhelmed professors, or it could be a detriment to student learning. It remains to be seen if Cornell will follow the trend of outsourcing grades and how this new way of grading will affect our academic community.

Original Author: Rachel Rabinowitz