Virtual-TA program provides outsourced grading

Chronicle of Higher Education story that caught my eye

The headline of the Chronicle of Higher Education story caught my attention:
Outsourced Grading, With Supporters and Critics, Comes to College.”

I was reading the Chronicle’s e-mailed list of headlines, and I clicked on this story.

For teachers of subjects like writing, grading seems like a relentless part of the educational process.

Students need to practice writing, and they need to receive feedback so they can continue to learn and improve as they move into the next round of writing assignments. But the paper grading can seem unending.

Lori Whisenant  was the focus for The Chronicle story’s lead — a teacher of business law and ethics at the University of Houston, who was overwhelmed with the grading. Even with seven teaching assistants, they couldn’t keep up with grading the 5,000 words each of the 1,000 students produced.

The answer for Whisenant was Virtual-TA, a service of EduMetry Inc., a company based in Virginia that uses graders in the US, India, Singapore and Malaysia. The virtual TAs stay in contact with the professors through e-mail.

The assessors, as they are called by the company, are trained in the use of rubrics. The assessors receive the instructor’s syllabus and textbooks. To adapt to the instructor’s grading approach, the assessors can do initial grading and submit it to the teacher for review.

Sample grading template

The assessors use templates for grading, inserting comments into the students’ papers. The teacher has the option to make additional comments or adjust the assessor’s comments. The teacher also receives a summary of the problems for the set of papers.

I kept reading — not only to learn about the logistics but to find the bottom line. How much does this service cost? About $12 per student per assignment.

On one hand, you think about the time involved in grading a class set of writing assignments, and $12 a paper seems like a bargain. But then you think about the lump sum. For Professor Whisenant’s business law and ethics class with 1,000 students, that’s $12,000 per writing assignment. But leave it to the school of business to figure out how to make this arrangement do-able.

The instructors interviewed for the story endorse Virtual-TA, saying that the grading is effective and complete and allows the instructors to spend more time on instruction.

I’ve just finished another semester of grading student writing. Week after week. Writing assignment after writing assignment — resumes, news stories, news releases, profiles.

I do know that rubrics can be developed to provide clarity in writing expectations for students in writing their assignments and for teachers in grading those assignments. I have developed rubrics that I use with my seven teaching assistants, as we grade writing for our 250 students each semester. And some courses use graders, typically graduate students being paid by the hour to evaluate student work. So the concept of having those evaluating student writing as being separate from the instructor of the course already is in practice.

But would I have known my students’ abilities and challenges as well if someone else had done the grading and then provided me with a list of writing concerns? Would students have a different connection with you and regard for you as the teacher if their writing was being outsourced to India of Malaysia?

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