A veteran university professor frustrated with the tedium and time of grading papers has created a company that outsources the job to India.
With a dozen clients in academia and a thick skin, Dr. Chandru Rajam is prepared to weather the outrage EduMetry Inc. of Herndon, Va., has set off.
Virtual-TA, which hires offshore university-educated staff to assess, grade and comment on student assignments, is only one of the EduMetry services. But it is by far the most controversial.
“Our intent is not to cheapen or degrade the learning and teaching equation,”
Rajam told the Star. “We think there is a better model. We never outsource the responsibility, we’re just outsourcing the activity.
“I like to half-jokingly point out that a mother is outsourcing childcare to a daycare provider. If you can entrust the care of your infant to a third person, any form of outsourcing should be fair game.”
Since it was created five years ago, EduMetry has assembled a team of adjunct professors, retired teachers, “homemakers with masters’ degrees” and other university-educated staff, most in India but some in Singapore and Malaysia, to grade 2,000 student assignments a week. A selling point, said Rajam, is the extensive comments that accompany each grade – something graduate assistants and professors can seldom supply.
A professor at George Washington University, Rajam understands the wary response so far.
“The vast majority of the comments tend to be negative. We knew what we were in for at Day One. Nor do we claim our service is for everyone. If the student-teacher ratio is very manageable, such an institution has no need for our services. But there are a variety of higher education contexts, so I think there is a role for us.”
Among students, he said, “any apprehension at first blush goes away when they see the quality of the feedback.”
“Everyone who has ever had a college degree knows what it’s like to just get ‘good’ written in the margin and wonder what it means,” said Terri Friel, dean of the business school at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “This gives students a great deal more guidence.”
Friel used Virtual-TA at her previous university, Butler in Indianapolis. At Roosevelt, she has used one of EduMetry’s other programs.
“I consider Chandru a brilliant business man. His company offers something really unique.”
Virtual-TA graders are trained to compile reports for professors that point out overall problems as well as specific student errors, she said. “They can say, ‘Your students aren’t getting this concept.’ It’s a very nice system.”
A western Canadian college or university is among EduMetry’s dozen clients, but Rajam declined to identify it. The University of Houston director of business law and ethics, Lori Whisenant, is a client, as are professors at the University of Iowa College of Business Administration, West Hills Community College in Coalinga, Calif., Ohio Northern University and George Washington.
Whisenant’s seven teaching assistants had to wade through papers from 1,000 students each year.
“Our graders were great but they were not experts in providing feedback,” Whienant told The Chronicle of Higher Education about her teaching assistants. With Virtual-TA, “we’re working with professionals.”
Prices vary per course, but Virtual-TA estimates the program costs a university about $12 per student per assignment. Six assignments for 20 students would cost $1,440. EduMetry graders receive from $500 to $1,000 a month, depending on hours worked, according to GlobalPost, a news service.
EduMetry has developed a checklist for each professor that begins several weeks before a semester with a briefing on course content, the professor’s style and expectations, said Rajam. A grader will typically send an early run of papers back to a professor to see if the work is handled according to plan.
“As a business school professor, what I find is there are double standards,” said Rajam. “As long as outsourcing meant for the last 30 years only the flight of blue-collar jobs, that was okay. The moment it extends to knowledge work, immediately people get defensive. The idea that EduMetry can’t mark an English Composition 101 paper is ludicrous.”
Indeed, an article by the Chronicle on EduMetry generated nearly 100 comments, many angry that their work was devalued.
“This is race-to-the-bottom economic rationalism,”
wrote Raymond J. Ritchie. Students “are paying big tuition fees for an education in a Western country and they get marked by a call-in-centre in India! This idea is so cheap and nasty.”
“I don’t want to come across as disrespectful or painting with a large brush,” said Rajam. “The members of the academic profession who seem to have the greatest difficulty are not as cognizant of what’s going in the global economy. They are people who don’t have a deep understanding of the world today.”
Said Friel: “I also think grading is a very low level way of teaching. It’s not the best use of the brain power and talent of your professors. But this doesn’t mean you can’t go and read a student’s paper. I take exception to the people who think this takes everything away from them.”