Education: the virtual TA

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The World

Photo caption: Students of the graduating class of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, University of Law, in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, July 21, 2007. Army officers’ wives, stay-at-home moms with young children and retired teachers have grabbed the chance to work as virtual TAs. (Krishnendu Halder/Reuters)

BANGALORE, India — Not far from the magnificent snow peaks of the Himalayas, Anita Bakshi stares at the computer screen in her home at Kalimpong. She is correcting and grading college assignments.

She carefully considers the sentence structures and format, correcting the grammar and critiquing the content. Bakshi, who holds a master's degree in both education and English, embeds her comments in the assignment. Articles "a" and "the" are a problem in this particular assignment, while some sentence structures are faulty and a few key points are missing from the argument.

But here's the catch: her students are not Indian. They attend the University of Houston in Texas, thousands of miles away in another hemisphere.

In what might have been inconceivable a few years ago, some cash-strapped American universities and overworked faculty are turning to outsourcing, a tactic fine-tuned by U.S. corporations to cut costs. In distant Kalimpong in northeastern India, army wife Bakshi is a virtual teaching assistant for EduMetry, a company based in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.

The trend is not without controversy.

Education in the U.S. has been faulted recently for falling behind rigorous academic systems in India and China. Some critics find it ironic that myriad teaching tasks such as homework help, SAT exam support and now, grading students’ college assignments, is being outsourced to India, one of the countries that President Barack Obama exhorts Americans to compete against in the global workplace.

“We are just getting started, this trend is unstoppable,” said Ravindra Singh Bangari, vice president of EduMetry in India, where the bulk of its assessors are based. Bangari, formerly a counterinsurgency specialist in the Indian army, teaches at a premier business school in India while EduMetry’s co-founder Chandru Rajam is a professor at George Washington University School of Business.

This week, sitting in a small, spare office in downtown Bangalore where the whirring fans provide little respite from the scorching summer heat, Bangari is preparing for an incoming rush for its Virtual TA service. A thousand papers need to be graded and returned in 10 days.

Outsourcing is contentious because many Americans blame the practice for job losses. Outsourcing this particular ingredient of academics could backfire on American schools, further amplifying the gap between instructors and students, some feel. But Bangari disagrees. “We are freeing up professors and teaching assistants of the tiresome task of grading, so they can spend more time interacting with their students, helping them do better,” he said. EduMetry charges about $12 per assignment evaluated.

Terri Friel, dean of the Walter E. Heller College of Business at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, agrees that the Virtual TA service can enhance the conversation between faculty members and students. Faculty, if honest, will admit that they can spare no more than an hour at most going through students’ work. “Students usually get a red slash on their work with a NO! or a GOOD! floating in the margin without any idea of what either means,” she said. “What other teaching assistant develops a report on common errors, the implications of that and how to fix it?” she asked.

Ohio Northern University, George Washington University and Butler University are among those who use the service, as do a number of online colleges. The law and ethics class at the University of Houston averages 500 students per term, each producing five assignments.

“Obviously the traditional system of assessment where one professor and a couple of teaching assistants take care of all the grading cannot work,” said Bangari. Assessor Natalia Shukla who grades English papers says that the errors in some student assignments are overwhelming.

Graders, a network of army officers’ wives, stay-at-home moms with young children, retired teachers — all well-qualified, Bangari hastens to describe — have grabbed the chance to use technology to work remotely and for flex-hours, communicating with U.S. faculty on email, chat and by phone.

They each earn $500 to $1,000 a month, depending on the time spent and the complexity of assignment graded. Army wife Rama Vishwanath is a management graduate whose husband is stationed in Srinagar in northern Kashmir. She spends five hours daily grading about 10 management assignments. In Bangalore, the Russian-born Shukla, who holds a master's degree in Indian history, works between five and 10 hours a day, assessing English and sociology assignments.

TA outsourcing is not without challenges. Remote assessors can miss the classroom discussion that provides additional context to the assignments, and sometimes even the socio-cultural perspective. They often have to shift cultural gears, making their proper English less formal to adapt to American colloquialisms. The initial grading standards set by EduMetry were so high that students were upset at receiving low marks. The assessors have since learned to be less blunt and more generous with grades.

Despite the criticism, EduMetry sees validation for its service. It is inundated with emails from Americans wishing to enroll as graders. Bangari counted 35 resumes in the last few weeks. There has been a flood of inquiries from colleges and universities asking for grading services in courses ranging from nursing to philosophy.

EduMetry currently handles 2,000 student assignments a week. But Bangari says demand outstrips supply by three times. He wants to hire another 20 assessors and build capacity to 5,000 students papers a week.

He has the support of U.S. educators like Roosevelt University's Friel:“The service can assist us to better educate our students and make better use of a very expensive resource — faculty minds that are in shorter and shorter supply."

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