This blog and the associated Linked In group were created, in part, to highlight the innovative work of university management and entrepreneurs in higher education. I’ve been lucky enough to interview people like Jeff Shelstad, CEO of Flat World Knowledge, who founded a business that addresses the problem of rising textbook costs, without reducing quality. And Neil Allison, whose work in the emerging field of educational analytics will almost certainly be part of the future of higher education. Dr. Chandru Rajam is another education professional seeking to bring innovation to higher education.
Chandru (PhD, Penn State) served as a business school professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and at the National University of Singapore, then served as regional Director for Advisory Services at the Economist Intellligence Unit, a division of The Economist Group. He then went on to become one of the founding Deans at Universitas 21 Global, the online graduate business school based in Singapore. His current passion is Edumetry, a company that provides grading and evaluation services to colleges and universities.
KCH: Chandru, can we begin with a brief explanation of the fundamental idea behind your business?
Fundamentally, I imagined a system of instruction in which teaching and grading are decoupled for the sake if improving the efficiency and effectiveness of both activities. On the face of it, such a goal presupposes a number of things: that these activities are currently inefficient and ineffective (a fairly broad charge that many will contest), but those were—and continue to be—my points of departure. I am a business-school professor by doctoral training; so, it’s not hard to see why I analyze higher education through the lens of efficiency and effectiveness. For better or for worse, industry has made great strides in the pursuit of division of labor and in deploying technology for achieving efficiency and effectiveness. So, whether professors and administrators like it or not, the benchmarks were set and the comparisons with the way Business did things became inevitable. Eventually, the contrast and the case for revisiting the idea of grading and instruction has become more and more compelling. Take the most recent example of the law-school dean at UC-Berkeley extolling the virtues of a cyber-campus as a strategy to deal with that state’s fiscal crisis. Clearly, online education offers a number of advantages, not the least of which is efficiency, but it took a fiscal crisis for “the greatest public university” to discover online education as a serious undertaking, not just as something lesser-mortal institutions offered!
Simply put, by decoupling grading from instruction and treating them as distinct sub-systems that can be performed by different people, both activities can become better and less costly. Grading is among the least-liked of a faculty member’s activities and has come to receive short shrift. Good instruction requires more time and energy to be devoted to the cause. By requiring faculty to do both well, neither has flourished. The time has come to face the dual-mediocrity that instruction and grading have become.
KCH: What is the common way in which grading and feedback is managed within colleges and universities? What do we know about the effectiveness of this approach?
Unfortunately, and at the risk of oversimplification, students do NOT receive the feedback they need to close the learning loop. To be effective, feedback on student assignments must be timely, detailed and point out strengths and weaknesses in student understanding. Even a student who received an A-minus deserves rich feedback that points out why s/he missed an A. The truth is that almost no faculty member has the time to provide that kind of feedback. In the absence of such feedback, students muddle through their concepts or, at best, struggle through more advanced material. Even when faculty provide detailed feedback, the typical delay in getting it to students means that the student has long since forgotten the context surrounding the assignment, thus, losing the opportunity to learn from such feedback. There has simply flowed too much water under the bridge for them to revisit the material. Most students are lucky if they received more than a few scrawls of comment within, say, two weeks of submitting a written assignment. Forget higher-order learning theories like double-loop learning (Argyris, 1974), which remain a distant dream. In out system of mass higher-education, we have come to accept a kind of mediocrity that accepts the premise that good teaching and good grading are somehow incompatible and, worse, that good professors teach, but couldn’t be expected to provide rich, timely feedback. This is the kind of mediocrity that plagued Detroit before the onslaught mounted by the Japanese automakers: a state of malaise that poses low-cost and high-quality as somehow incompatible and even unworthy of pursuit. After all, the Europeans were there to make high-quality. high-performance cars, while Detroit simply served up mush to the mass-market. The twain simply co-existed in their separate continental world, until great, inexpensive cars rolled off ships to challenge these behemoths. The result: GM and Chrysler went into bankruptcy this year!
KCH: Virtual-TA serves a function normally handled by academics. How has the market responded to the business concept? Which segment of the market is most inclined to use these services?
Most faculty privately wish they could simply outsource their grading to somebody else, but only the elite, research institutions have the budgets to pay TAs to do the grading. Occasionally, even at non-research institutions, large classes are allotted TAs, but that’s nota guarantee. Virtual-TA changes all that. We offer to grade student written assignments within 3-5 business days and embed the document (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) with detailed commentary. We also color-code the feedback by student learning-outcome (SLO), an added bonus for instructors and administrators. Using a rubric (blessed by the faculty), we score student work on the SLOs, thereby, generating learning-outcomes data. We’ve in effect turned the graded output into a high-quality, high-impact outcome, something faculty simply cannot do. Our TAs/ graders are all Masters or PhD holders and are trained in the art of providing rich feedback and working with rubrics.
As for market reaction, the sad reality is that administrators in public institutions are timid about outsourcing grading. They fear that it will be frowned upon by students, parents and/or their legislators. And, so they labor on, almost fearful of their own shadow! When I proposed the idea to the provost of a large state university, he remarked “I can just imagine the headlines in the [state capital’s] newspaper…” That pretty much summed up the sentiment. He also holds the tile of Executive Vice President, presumably in line for the presidency, which begs the question “Why do something risky from a political/ career perspective?”
But, the online and for-profit institutions see the logic and are much more receptive to the idea of improving the learning experience for their students, saving on instructional costs (by having the grading done by less expensive resources) and harvesting of learning -outcomes data from student assignments. I guess for-profit institutions have a sharper nose for these benefits than do traditional institutions.
KCH: My experience is that institutions actually have little knowledge of how their courses are being graded and the quality of feedback. This is typically a very decentralized activity, without much monitoring (attention is paid when something goes horribly wrong). Nevertheless, having these functions managed by an external organization likely makes convention-bound education professionals cautious. How have you managed to ensure that clients maintain the level and quality of control to which they are accustomed?
All aspects of Virtual-TA are designed to put the instructor at the center of the equation. They design the assignments and provide broad guidelines. They can edit or reject all of the feedback. They assign the letter grades based on SLO scores. We carry out an interim-check after a small sample of papers have been graded to ensure that we are on the right track. With all these safeguards in place, instructors are reassured of their control over all academic and pedagogical decisions.