In the University Council’s committee for research and education, Soete pointed out the contrast between the UM’s small-scale education and the exams in large halls, where students are presented with multiple-choice questions. Soete: “But PBL doesn’t work if examination is done in a traditional way. You should be stimulating students to write academic papers. This happens too little, because correction takes a lot of time.”
Soete, who emphasised that he did not speak on behalf of the Executive Board, therefore suggests that we follow the American example: “Send those papers to India, where there is a company that takes care of this. Academics there have first been instructed in assessing the work; they return it with feedback for the student and a grade. The quality of testing is better. Why would we not try something like that here?”
A short search on Internet for outsourced grading or marking confirms the image that the phenomenon is on the rise, and certainly not only in connection with online courses. Companies in the US or in India (Bangalore) itself outsource the work to academics who have – as they say themselves – at least a master’s degree, and are often women who want to work part-time and can do so from home, in India, Singapore and Malaysia, but some are also in the US itself. The assessors are trained in what is expected of them, receive test exams to assess, and are given feedback on their work. If all is up to scratch, they receive assignments. In principle, the papers will be marked and returned to the lecturer within four days; the latter then gives the student the final grade.
The article that prompted Soete, was published in the American journal The Chronicle of Higher Education and dates back to 2010. The British newspaper The Telegraph reported on the phenomenon in 2013: a worldwide institute for professional training, City&Guilds, had exams marked in Bangalore.
It was the interim dean of UCM, Teun Dekker, who drew the rector’s attention to the Chronicle article. The article (and other sources) also points out the main objections: outsiders are far removed from the practice in the classroom or a lecture, they don’t know the students personally, and who can guarantee that the assessors in India, or wherever, are up to the job?
Dekker: “I also have mixed feelings about it. You want lecturers to have a dialogue with students. But I also realise that with large numbers – so unlike at UCM - it is a tremendous effort to mark papers within fifteen working days. It means working in the evenings and at weekends.”
Both Soete and Dekker are advocates of a trial. Dekker: “As far as I’m concerned, it would be a good idea, checking out whether and how it works.” But people like Tom Smeets, spokesperson for education on the board of the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, is not in favour: “I read the article, very funny, but it is not a good idea. I could imagine it if it were about writing skills, but assessing the content requires subject-specific knowledge. I think that the quality of such an external assessment would be difficult to guarantee, and that examination committees would have objections. The only solution with large numbers of students is to have a team of lecturers whose schedule is blocked for a week, enabling them to mark exams.”