Friday, April 5, 2013

Grading as the New Battlefield

This guest post is authored by R. Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Grading might not be the most exciting aspect of a teacher’s career but it might be one of the best sources of job security - particularly in light of proposed online courses with automated grading that aim to put professors out of work or into unappealing, low-wage, jobs.

Of course we’ve heard a lot about online education, MOOCs, merit badges, and competency assessments. As Clayton Christiansen describes it, universities save money with online education simply because there is a glut of PhDs. For years graduate schools have been over producing the amount of PhDs. Consequently talented instructors are more than willing to teach courses at low wages, with no benefits, and with essentially no job security. As he writes in The Innovative University,
“Adjunct instructors give the online educators two advantages. Rather than receiving an annual salary, as full-time faculty at traditional universities do, online instructors are paid by the course. This means that the online university can match teaching supply to student demand - the instructor is hired, or contracted for, only when it class is likely to have enough students to generate an operating profit.  Also, an online instructors teaching performance is easily monitored, and an underperformer has no contractual right to further employment.” (page 213)
According to this view, it will be a lower class of underpaid instructors that will help bring higher education to the masses at a cheaper cost. It is a Wal-Mart version of higher education- a vision that combines both inexpensive education and legions of poorly paid instructors.

One might hope that this is just a minority view, a freakish nonrepresentative example. In fact you might say that there are structural barriers to the spread of online education: instructors are simply needed to grade students’ essays and exams. Unfortunately widespread changes might not be so unlikely. Yesterday a New York Times article described an effort to go beyond multiple-choice and actually automate the grading of essays. The vision is that a few superstar lecturers will deliver content to hundreds of thousands of students, whose grades will be established by a computer. To say nothing of whether the computer can actually grade an essay, one can imagine the impact on jobs for PhD’s. Another article from the Chronicle of Higher Education described a similar vision. The State of California has proposed a new university that requires no coursework whatsoever. Students simply need to take multiple-choice exams to receive a degree.

American higher education is commonly characterized as unique among industries in having missed the technological revolution. Universities have simply not garnered the productivity gains that other industries have received, mainly because teaching cannot be automated. Consequently college is exceptionally expensive. Advocates for greater access and cheaper prices maintain admirable positions; however the question remains who will pay for greater access and cheaper tuition. Many students cannot afford to pay for it, the private sector will not pay for it, and the states will not pay for it. Such efforts as described in the New York Times and the Chronicle suggest a technological solution. Many professors are to be replaced by machines, just as factory workers were replaced by robots. Maintaining control of grading is one way of preventing this change. Indeed, ownership of grading may soon become a major battleground for American professors and it seems that at least some of the American professoriate is rising to the challenge.