My parents were both teachers, and I know I picked up the habit or gene from them.  Sharing information (teaching) is something I’m good at, and also something I enjoy.  Part of my job in the past has been training people on software, and I continue to do that now.  One of my current company’s pillars is “Share what you know”, and I have never been dinged for not completing that ongoing chore.

My teaching philosophy is not to share only the “what”, but to get into the “why” and “how” as much as possible.  If I’m just teaching somebody what buttons to press at what time, I may as well be recording a script that a computer could play back.  It’s when I get into the reason for doing it, or why something isn’t done a certain way, or here’s the simple way and a better way, that’s when I am teaching.  The whole “teach a man to fish” thing, played out in bits and bytes.

One of the most important thing to me is to make sure the lesson catches.  If somebody doesn’t want to use their new-found knowledge, that’s their loss.  It’s my job to make sure they know the stuff, not to force them to use it.

That’s why this article on outsourced grading really rubs me the wrong way.  Papers are being sent to India to be graded so that the teacher doesn’t have to be bothered.  Oh, that’s not the reason they give.  “Professors freed from grading papers can spend more time teaching and doing research.”  Let’s take it further and say that professors freed from teaching altogether can spend more time doing research.  Fine.  But don’t call them professors.  Firemen freed from fighting fires can spend more time keeping the engines clean – but they’re not firefighters any more.

But Steve, you don’t understand!  The teacher has a thousand students a year, and only seven teaching assistants.  There’s not enough time.  Well, now, what’s the optimum class size?  Twenty?  Fifty?  Surely not five hundred per semester.  So I’m seeing that the “problem” being faced is that the school (university?  Cattle drive?) can’t push enough butts through this one teacher’s class.  And how much money is being spent by each student on this particular class?  The course on Business Law and Ethics is 3-credits.  A state resident pays $8532 for a 15-hour load and the associated fees.  So this course is $1,706.40. Well, make that $2821.60 for non-residents, who make up about 11% of the student body.  The blended number is $1829.072 .  Call it eighteen hundred for good measure.

That’s per student.  The article says there are a thousand students taking this course every year.  Slide the comma over three spaces and boom – this course brings in $1.8M for the school.  No wonder they want to slam more people through it.  Figure the teacher (who is a director and also an attorney) makes a quarter mil a year.  Seven TAs at a generous $25K rounds up to two hundred thou.  Facilities for just this course might run fifty grand a year.  Since the biggest budgetary item is “miscellaneous”, let’s give that three hundred thousand.  That covers overhead, administration, and stockbroker fees (did I say that out loud?).  Still leaves a cool million for just this course.  Double the numbers to be ridiculous and there’s still two hundred thousand profit for the year.  Something’s wrong there.

But I digress.

The fine folks in India (and I work with fine people from India on a daily basis) charge twelve bucks to grade a paper for one student.  If this Ethics course has four assignments, that’s pushing fifty thousand in grading costs.  Shoooooweee!  Now you’re getting into a little bit of pocket change.

But I forgot – it’s not about the money.

Seriously – I had started to do this essay on the disconnect between teacher and student.  I do think that removing the teacher’s eyes from the students’ work is a massive point of failure.  “But we’re overwhelmed!”  “So have fewer students.  Add more teachers.  Bring class sizes down to normal.  You’d be surprised at how that improves your ability to monitor the students and grade their papers yourself.”  But it will hurt the college’s bottom line, so it’s not an option.

The guys I work with – there are four of them – know that they can call me at any time of day or night.  I have trained them on Unix utilities and the way to think in doing our job.  I have done it for another bunch of people for another project, and I’ll do it again for some other set of people for the next project.  It’s hands-on, and I can tell you specific areas where they are strong, and areas where they are weak.  Not based solely on where they report that they are, but based on my interactions with them, and on me giving them individual assignments and seeing how they do.

Because if you are really teaching someone something, you have a hands-on knowledge of them and where they are in their learning.  You are involved with them, and have a relationship with them.  You aren’t passing off part of the mentoring to a third party.  That doesn’t cut it.  The knowledge the teacher could gain is lost, and the advice from the “grader” may not match up.  The grader doesn’t know that the four guys who sit together in the back row turned in almost-identical papers.  The grader doesn’t know that the girl on the left-hand aisle just lost her mom, or that the guy down front has trouble reading the board and hearing the assignments.  The personal contact is lost.

That’s in addition to the fact that these papers are being graded by someone whose first language is not English.  The graders have at least master’s degrees and must pass a writing test.  To me, that doesn’t matter.  I can tell from any significant note whether the writer is from the US or from India.  There are enough figures of speech that are different to indicate the country of origin.  “Today evening” instead of “this evening”.  “Do the needful”.  Little things like that don’t greatly interfere with communication, but they are definitely different.  I’m sure that there are phrases that go the other way, too, where the intent is conveyed through unfamiliar phraseology.  “Pull out all the stops” refers to playing an organ, which doesn’t happen too often when the national instruments are the sitar and tablas.  “I feel like a fifth wheel” doesn’t translate well when the most common vehicles have only two or three wheels.

I had thought that there might be a place for something like outsourced grading in on-line courses, but I changed my mind.  Even without ever being face-to-face with the students, the teacher still knows them (or can know them).  The teacher gets feedback from electronic questions during class, and from reading and grading the papers.  Outsourcing the grading removes that contact.

Bad move, US colleges and universities.  It’s like outsourcing the teaching of your church’s Sunday School classes to the strange denomination down the street.  The kids will be taught, yes, but what will they be taught?

It makes all the difference in the world.

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