Outsourcing has infiltrated the college classroom.
When some students at West Hills Community College turn in their work, it's forwarded to an anonymous tutor hunched over a computer in Bangalore or San Diego, or somewhere in between.
No one at West Hills seems to know who or where the tutors are, or how they're qualified. Administrators and teachers say it doesn't matter; with the tutors' help, students' writing and math skills are improving.
But educators across the nation argue that such services devalue teachers, threaten student-teacher relationships, undermine students' education and pose ethical quandaries.
"It's a creepy-crawly thing," said Marilyn Valentino, an English professor at Lorain County Community College in Ohio and a national authority on college composition instruction. "You'll [eventually] go to one master syllabus and one teacher, and all these invisible people behind computers."
But online tutors will never take teachers' jobs at West Hills, said Susan Whitener, associate vice chancellor of educational planning, not "by any stretch of the imagination."
Online on the rise
Online tutoring services are on the rise as colleges and universities deal with budget cuts. In some cases, full-time faculty have been replaced with part-time teachers. Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, said the part-time teachers, many of whom have other jobs, are assisted by online tutors.
Also, some students take online courses and seldom come to campus.
In 2006, West Hills hired RichFeedback, a Virginia-based online education assessment company, to give teachers one more low-cost option to help students who lack basic math and writing skills. Administrators say students who use the virtual tutoring service are more likely to stay in school and make better grades.
RichFeedback hasn't been widely used by West Hills faculty. Only 2% sent classwork to the virtual tutors this year -- all in online classes, Whitener said.
They included David Jones, who teaches an online law enforcement class at West Hills and also works full-time at the Kings County Sheriff's Department. Jones doesn't have time to slog through papers riddled with grammatical errors, nor should he be expected to, said Carole Goldsmith, vice chancellor of educational services and work-force development at West Hills. Community college teachers are considered experts in a certain subject matter -- in Jones' case, law enforcement.
"His job shouldn't be, 'This is the subject, this is the verb,' " Goldsmith said. "He doesn't teach English."
That's where RichFeedback comes in. Teachers send classwork to the company's headquarters in Virginia, where company managers assign tutors. RichFeedback tutors can live anywhere, but many are in India. They receive samples of papers the teachers have corrected so they can match "the tone and level of the feedback that the teacher would provide, if he had the time," said Tara Sherman, RichFeedback's vice president of client services. Often, Sherman said, more than one tutor is assigned to a class.
The papers are returned a few days later covered with color-coded corrections, suggestions for improvements and references to class text examples. Jones said he then marks up the papers, looking only at the content, and weighs the tutor's grammatical corrections when grading.
Students "are getting two for the price of one," Jones said. "Without even realizing it, they're learning the English language."