West Hills turns to online tutoring service

Grammar corrected anonymously online.

May 11, 2011 

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."

But students can't ask tutors questions, because RichFeedback doesn't want to interfere with the student-teacher relationship, Sherman said. West Hills teachers said they couldn't remember students ever asking about RichFeedback comments.

West Hills would not make available for interviews students whose classwork has been corrected by online tutors.

And some teachers question just how much benefit the online tutors provide.

"To be honest, I don't know how much it helps, but if it's free [for students] and as long as it's not causing harm, there's no downside," said Frieda Ganter, a full-time math instructor who uses RichFeedback for her online statistics class.

College pays for service

Although students don't pay for the service, West Hills does. The district, which doesn't have a written contract with RichFeedback but renews a verbal agreement each semester, will owe the company about $24,000 for the 2010-11 year. Teachers have a $2,000 limit for RichFeedback tutors for each course, which allowed sociology teacher Holly Suarez to send 170 assignments to the virtual tutors last semester.

Online tutors are cheaper than hiring a full-time employee for the college's tutoring center, which is staffed by students, Whitener said. The virtual tutors also are more qualified, she said.

RichFeedback tutors are required to have a Ph.D. or be Ph.D.-qualified and speak English fluently, Sherman said. But West Hills has never asked to see their credentials, according to the school and RichFeedback.

Administrators insist RichFeedback is a service for students, not a time-saving shortcut for teachers.

As class sizes have increased, teachers say they have saved time using the tutors.

Suarez said she started using RichFeedback in her online sociology class in fall 2009 when the number of students more than doubled.

Larger classes often mean more dropouts; students must compete for resources and teachers' workloads often preclude one-on-one time.

But according to a West Hills survey, the percentage of students who finished Suarez's course rose from 50% in 2007 to 66% in 2009.

"Not only has [RichFeedback] helped with time savings, it has really helped students stay in class," she said.

The West Hills survey also reported that the average number of students who finished an introductory online math class fell from 80% in spring 2009 to 74% in spring and fall of 2010 after the instructor started using online tutors.

The college's survey data did not consider other factors that may have affected students, such as employment or computer access.

Some educators frown on practice

How much can students learn from tutors who have no direct contact with them or their teachers? According to some educators, very little.

Virtual tutors are "deaf, dumb and blind to class discussions and assignments," Valentino said. The tutors' formulaic corrections don't consider students' individual progress and hamper creativity.

"It treats college students, especially community college students, as second-grade human beings," Valentino said.

Some students are equally blind about who is grading their work. Teachers are not required to tell their classes about the service, and some don't.

"For all the student knows, I make those assessments. They don't even know [RichFeedback] exists," Jones said. "It's insignificant to the student."

But students have a right to know who is reading and evaluating their work, said Kathleen Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University and past president of the National Council of English Teachers.

"There is an implied contract between the teachers and students," Yancey said, that says if "students are getting feedback from someone other than the teacher, they would be so informed."

The reporter can be reached at hsomerville@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6412.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service