Outsourcing in Higher Education – will physics be the first to go?

Robert Ehrlich

Outsourcing components of higher education is a complex issue. Here we discuss a number of forms of outsourcing, and speculate about the impact on physics programs. Although it is not usually considered outsourcing, the increasing reliance on part-time faculty by many schools, in effect is just that. When a university chooses to hire inexpensive part-time faculty rather than fill full-time slots, we understand it to be an administrative prerogative, and a way to cope with budgetary stringency. Nevertheless, in such cases most faculty and administrators probably would acknowledge that part-timers will not fulfill the many non-teaching duties taken on by full-time faculty, including curriculum development and research, which cannot be so easily outsourced. The question of compromising teaching quality is somewhat less clear however, since some part-time faculty may be highly qualified, and possess expertise that is absent among the full-timers. On the other hand, what is acceptable on the part of the institution and its administration is certainly not acceptable on the part of individual faculty. Thus, "outsourcing" by full-time faculty members of their teaching duties is not permitted – they are not free to pay someone out of their own pocket to teach their classes, apart from covering perhaps one or two classes when they are out of town.

There are, however, other forms of outsourcing of teaching-related duties, where complex issues arise that are often overlooked. For example, consider the issue of computerized grading of homework – a service that is increasingly available by both textbook publishers and other companies – especially in physics. Many faculty members believe that this innovation is highly desirable, because of its many advantages – routine grading of all student homework (not just a random sample), allowing students to do the homework on their own schedule, get prompt feedback, and be permitted multiple tries to get the "right" answer. Other faculty members are less impressed with such systems, precisely because rewarding student’s finding the right answer does not measure their understanding very well. Some faculty may use such systems as a labor-saving device, but fear that it represents a quality compromise.

Most institutions are quite content to defer to the judgment of individual academic departments on such matters. But suppose there is a division of opinion within the unit, – should some faculty members be allowed to use such systems, which are often provided free by publishers, whatever their colleagues think? I suspect that most faculty would answer "yes" on grounds of academic freedom, even though the individuals who use the service are in effect outsourcing a time-consuming teaching-related duty entirely on their own, and hence reducing their workload. Now let’s take this grading outsourcing example a step further.

If the online homework grading is not provided free, is there any problem with faculty members paying for it on their own, and would the department have the right to forbid such a practice? Again, most faculty would probably regard the matter as one of academic freedom, and side with the individual faculty member. The tricky further extension is whether faculty members have the right to privately contract not with companies providing online grading of homework, but rather with private individuals to grade their student’s homework – assuming student identities are kept confidential. It seems likely, for example, that one could easily locate highly-qualified persons in developing nations that would be eager to do this for a very small fee. One could argue that this should be disallowed, because individual faculty have a strong self-interest (and hence a possible ethical conflict) in making the judgment that the individuals doing the grading are in fact highly qualified, and doing a proper job. (I assume this was the basis for my dean venturing the opinion that the hypothetical hiring of individuals by faculty seemed to him to be unethical.) However, exactly the same kind of self-interest criticism can be made about those choosing to use a computerized grading system. This hiring of graders by faculty for the moment remains hypothetical, although I am sorely tempted to look into the possibilities – especially for the grading of lab reports, one of the least pleasant chores for many science faculty.

Outsourcing of individual components of teaching duties, such as grading, is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, with many schools outsourcing whole courses, and degree programs. Online education is now well over 20% of all post-secondary education, and growing rapidly. In fact, a law dean at the University of California at Berkeley recently publicly advocated online universities as a partial solution to the State’s fiscal problems (July 23, 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education). Elite campuses in states facing less of a budget crunch can continue to justify the traditional mode of higher education, based on their research mission. But how long will it be until many less-prestigious four-year institutions than Berkeley conclude that in an era of budgetary stringency most of their under-enrolled majors can just as well be done entirely online, making use of the creative talents of highly-educated citizens in English-speaking developing nations?

I suspect that for a variety of reasons physics degrees might be among the first programs to be outsourced by some schools to other online degree-granting institutions. These reasons include:

  1. The low enrollment (and high cost) of many physics programs
  2. The extent to which much grading in physics is already done online – far more than other subjects
  3. The willingness of many institutions, including some very prestigious ones, to boost their own course enrollments in physics by offering an online supplement
  4. The wide availability of online resources, including applets, demonstrations, course notes, and indeed whole courses in physics

Robert Ehrlich chairs the physics and astronomy department at George Mason University. In 2009 he had his own venture into the world of outsourcing, when he contracted with a company in India to build the rev-up.org web site. Rev-up stands for renewable energy valuation and understanding project, and the acronym reminds us of the need to rev-up our efforts in this important area.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.