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Re: Pilot by Kentucky Comm and Tech Coll System: Outsourcing academic functions


John Orr <[log in to unmask]>


Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>


Thu, 22 Sep 2005 16:12:58 -0700





text/plain (363 lines)

Dear Listservers:

About 20 years ago, my college allowed some English faculty to make use
of hired paper graders as a way of lessening the workload for
instructors.  For a couple of semesters, I used them, and found that my
load was not lessened much because 1)I still felt I had to read the
essays in order to teach students effectively and 2) there were types of
useful comment that the hired help could not make and that I could.  In
addition, the wait time for the scoring then was 1 week, which was far
too long to promote effective teaching in a semester-length class.

However, Smarthinking has brought the wait time down to one day.  And
the company would offer a neutral grader, with no knowledge of the
student so no bias (as well as no opportunity to provide
individually-directed help, to be sure).  I can quite easily imagine
some assignments, perhaps few, being scored by outside readers using a

As for who monitors the outside scorers, I can imagine a feedback loop
from instructors who have used the system and subsequently scored a few
of the same essays of their own.  I have no idea whether Smarthinking is
planning such an activity.

John Orr
Director, Academic Support Programs and Services
Fullerton College
Fullerton, California 92832

[log in to unmask]
(714) 992-7000, Ext. 26800

-----Original Message-----
From: Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals
[mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Patty Van Osterhoudt
Sent: Thursday, September 22, 2005 3:45 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Pilot by Kentucky Comm and Tech Coll System: Outsourcing
academic functions

Listservers,  I would think the Smarthink reader would have to clearly
understand the criteria of the professor's writing prompt in order to
grade fairly.  It seems one would necessarily need to be in the
classroom to understand the scope of the assignment.  This reminds of
when my high school-age children brought home math homework and wanted
my help!

Nic Voge <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Sonya & Listservers,
I think your questions are well-framed and your concerns very
reasonable. I fear, as your questions suggest, that this pursuit of
"efficiency" is ripe for problems and abuses.

I think you are too generous to the college, though, when you say this
"tool" could be used or misused. My opinion is that this pedagogical
choice is based on a flawed view of teaching and learning, and
evaluation and grading in particular. I don't believed it is justified
or even justifiable in pedagogical terms. Teacher evaluation of student
work is an essential aspect of the INTERACTIVE and STRATEGIC nature of
both teaching and learning. Informed, specific evaluation of students
work by the instructor is vital to completing the feedback loop between
teaching and learning. But, this approach mistakenly conceives of
grading as ancillary to teaching and thus amenable to outsourcing.

Another mistaken belief is that writing across disciplines, courses and
levels can be graded along the same criteria. Writing Across the
Curriculum studies demonstrate how utterly simplistic this conception of
academic writing is.

What I see happening here is that there is no powerful constituency in
the college to object to this pedagogical malpractice. Financially
stretched college administrators want to save money and they see this as
a mechanism for doing so. Over-burdened faculty would love to get out
from under one of the more onerous aspects of their jobs--grading. And
there is no countervailing force in the institution to challenge this
path of least resistance in the name of QUALITY of instruction and

I would bet my bottom dollar that this decision could not be easily
squared with the college's mission statement. Put another way, this
choice doesn't follow from the highest values of the institution, but
from the crassest pursuit of economic "efficiency". Students, the only
constituency likely to challenge this move now that faculty have
abdicated their responsibilities, probably don't have the awareness,
sense of agency and voice they would need to effectively protest.
And, they are less likely, now that pedagogy has been sacrificed in the
name of penury, to acquire them through their education.


>Will instructor written assignment prompts be reviewed by Smarthinking
>to see if they are well written and clear?
>Will students be given the 8 area, 32 item criteria so they know upon
>what they are being assessed?
>Will faculty read through the graded essays to become familiar with
>student patterns of change and progress?
>Concerns about grading the graders in the comment area are appropriate.
>Since Smarthinking is a for profit business, will they attend to
>excellence in their product or might they sacrifice this in order to
>meet the 24 hour turnaround expected by their "clients"? Who will
>assess the quality of the product being produced by Smarthinking?
>As with any tool, this could be used well or misused. I'll be
>interested in how this develops.
>Sonya Hildreth ([log in to unmask])
>California State University, Fresno
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals
>[mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Dan Kern
>Sent: Thursday, September 22, 2005 5:31 AM
>To: [log in to unmask]
>Subject: Pilot by Kentucky Comm and Tech Coll System: Outsourcing
>academic functions
>Sept. 22
>Outsourced Grading
>Many colleges these days outsource their bookstores or cafeterias or
>dormitories, based on the idea that private businesses may be able to
>provide better service at lower prices. Not everyone agrees with that
>idea, to be sure, but outsourcing of non-academic functions has become
>But what about academic functions?
>In a move that may take outsourcing past traditional levels, Kentucky's

>community colleges this fall have started a pilot project in which an
>outside company is reading and providing evaluations of student essays
>in freshman composition courses. The program is small to date - only 48

>students are having their papers assessed in this way - but Kentucky
>officials are enthusiastic about the potential for expanding the
>effort. And the company - Smarthinking - sees this as a service it
>would like to offer other colleges.
>"The idea is that we can take the grading burden off of professors, and

>free up their time to do other things, such as working with students
>who need extra help," said Burck Smith, CEO of the company, which has
>previously focused on providing outsourced tutoring centers for
>colleges in which students receive assistance online.
>Not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect of outsourced grading.
>"I'm appalled," said Douglas Hesse, board chair of the Conference on
>College Composition and Communication. "This is abdicating something
>that is crucial to instruction," said Hesse, a professor of English and

>director of the honors program at Illinois State University.
>The pilot program is being developed by the distance education arm of
>the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which currently
>enrolls about 40,000 students. Sandra L. Cook, who runs the distance
>education program, said, "We're in a situation now where the demand
>[for courses] is higher than the supply, so we're trying to create
>situations with faculty where we can develop efficiencies."
>The system has been working to be sure that the most popular general
>education courses are available online and are strengthened, and the
>grading plan is part of that effort, she said.
>Faculty members have long complained about the "laborious grading
>yet at the same time the system needs to find ways to educate more
>students without getting much more money, Cook said. Currently, class
>size tends not to exceed 25-30, she said, but the system would like to
>double or possibly quadruple that figure. "Our faculty have said that
>to scale up, they need more support," she added.
>"We want faculty to concentrate on the management of the course," she
>"We want to see how we can take our master faculty members and spread
>them around among more students."
>Enter Smarthinking. The company has a good reputation on many campuses
>where its online tutoring services, which employ many adjunct or
>retired faculty members, have been able to offer students extended
>hours (24/7 in some
>cases) that most colleges could never afford if they were staffing a
>tutoring center. Those same tutors are now being trained to grade
>essays for the Kentucky system or other clients that may come along.
>The grading is on a 32-point scale. Students receive up to 4 points
>(along with written comments as needed) in each of eight categories
>(worked out with Kentucky faculty members): main idea, introduction,
>content development, organization, transitions, conclusion, word choice
and grammar.
>Each of those categories have subcategories that also receive 1-4
>points, with the average of the subcategory scores being used to
>determine a category score. In content development, for instance,
>subcategories focus on such elements as topic sentences, the unity of
>paragraphs, and the use of analysis.
>Smith stressed that faculty members could use the scores in any way
>they want. Aligning a score to a letter grade is a professor's choice
>as is totally rejecting the score. Smarthinking has pledged to provide
>scores within 24 hours of receiving essays.
>"Everything about this makes sense to the student and the institution.
>The student gets quicker turnaround and more consistent grading. The
>institution can get faculty members to focus more intensively on
students," Smith said.
>He acknowledged that some people might object to outsourcing an
>academic function, but he said that this service will be in "the best
>interests of the students." Cook also said that she would expect some
>faculty members to worry about this approach, and that's why Kentucky
>is starting with a pilot project.
>Hesse, of the college composition group, strongly disagreed. He
>acknowledged that this approach might lead to more consistency in
>grading, and that plenty of colleges use teaching assistants to grade
>papers, rather than a professor. But Hesse said that grading was not a
>function that should in any way be removed from the faculty members.
>The process of reading a paper and evaluating it, Hesse said, is
>crucial not only for assigning a grade, but for thinking about how to
>work with a given student, for evaluating whether certain assignments
>are achieving their goals, for revising lecture plans, and more.
>"Grading is a central role," he said.
>While faculty members will be able to review and change evaluations,
>Hesse said that either they will do enough work of their own to do that

>well (in which case time isn't saved) or they won't (in which case
>students lose out).
>"Let's say somebody has spared me the time of grading - and I hate
>using 'spared' in that way - there will be some teachers who will be
>very diligent, and will take this as one point of view and they will
>reproduce the same work. But I would fear the teachers who would be
>very cursory, and who might agree and say, 'that's an OK score,' but
>they don't know as much as they should about that student's writing."
>- Scott Jaschik
>I just don't see it. While this sounds better than computer-graded
>essays, it still concerns me that the instructors aren't going to know
>their students' work. One of the opportunities I have-and relish-is the

>ability to watch my students develop as thinkers and writers. I need to

>be able to indicate my appreciation of a student's progress in one area

>when that progress is noteworthy. I need to be able to sit down with a
>student and discuss how, exactly, an essay might have been improved,
>ideally in light of that student's other work.
>While I applaud the effort to provide greater access to students, I am
>leery of this appproach. Having said all that, however, I will
>recognize that the experiment is underway and I will reserve final
>judgement for a year from now.
>Andrew Purvis, at 6:28 am EDT on September 22, 2005
>Who is grading the graders?
>I would feel more confident about the grading service being sold to
>Kentucky if the company's CEO had employed the standard English phrase
>"taking the burden off professors" rather than the more colloquial "off

>of." I realize that speech is less formal than is writing, but as chief

>spokesman for a product evaluating written English among college
>students, his choosing to adopt a non-standard phrase hardly helps sell

>his product. Shall we hope that the reporter mis-heard him?
>Diane Vanner Steinberg, Asst. Prof. at The College of New Jersey, at
>7:24 am EDT on September 22, 2005
>Got something to say?
>Dan Kern
>Reading Skills Improvement
>East Central College AD21
>1964 Prairie Dell Road
>Union, MO 63084
>Phone: 636-583-5195
>Extension: 2426
>Fax: 636-584-0513
>Email: [log in to unmask]
>"What you teach is second
>to whom you teach. If it isn't,
>please find a 'job' very far
>away from students"
>(Andy Maedit)
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Dominic (Nic) J. Voge
Study Strategies Program Coordinator
University of California, Berkeley
Student Learning Center
136 Cesar Chavez Student Center #4260
Berkeley, CA 94720-4260

(510) 643-9278
[log in to unmask]

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