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 common.
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 process," 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 said. "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."