Lori Whisenant knows that one way to improve the writing skills of undergraduates is to make them write more. But as each student in her course in business law and ethics at the University of Houston began to crank out—often awkwardly—nearly 5,000 words a semester, it became clear to her that what would really help them was consistent, detailed feedback.I do appreciate the professor's wish to have her students write more as an aid to learning, and it's true that she couldn't possibly grade all that writing in a large lecture class herself. Still, here are a few questions:
Her seven teaching assistants, some of whom did not have much experience, couldn't deliver. Their workload was staggering: About 1,000 juniors and seniors enroll in the course each year. "Our graders were great," she says, "but they were not experts in providing feedback."
That shortcoming led Ms. Whisenant, director of business law and ethics studies at Houston, to a novel solution last fall. She outsourced assignment grading to a company whose employees are mostly in Asia.
Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc., took over. The goal of the service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task—and even, the company says, to do it better than TA's can. . . .
"People need to get past thinking that grading must be done by the people who are teaching," says Mr. Rajam, who is director of assurance of learning at George Washington University's School of Business. "Sometimes people get so caught up in the mousetrap that they forget about the mouse."
1. If the TA's are not up to the task just yet, how about training them and working with them until they can work with students' writing effectively? If they're teaching assistants, presumably University of Houston has some kind of graduate program in the field in which they're assisting. If they're graduate students, they're supposed to be learning and to be guided by faculty, aren't they? What am I missing here?
2. Doesn't this feed into the worst accusations of critics of academe that TA's are being accepted into programs primarily to teach (cost effectiveness for courses) and not to learn?
3. If additional instructors must be hired to help with the grading, it's good to know that there are absolutely no unemployed or underemployed M.A. and Ph.D. graduates trained in composition theory and experienced in the teaching of writing in Houston who could be hired and that outsourcing is entirely an ethical choice for the "director of business law and ethics studies."
4. I'm going to draw a polite curtain over the mousetrap/mouse analogy (students and their writing are the mouse, a mousetrap kills the mouse--oh, never mind.)
[Update: There are lots more comments on the article now at the original link. They range from "This is cost-effective; what's the problem?"(a few) to "For those prices, you could hire on-campus graders" (#18) to "What is teaching about, if grading isn't part of it?" (quite a few) to "Hire me! I'll grade them for $12 a pop" (a lot) to "You fat, lazy Americans won't take this job anyway, so why are you complaining?" (#43) to "How about we outsource administration?" (#47).]