TCS Daily

Outsourcing Teaching

By James D. Miller - May 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Outsourcing hasn't gone far enough: the U.S. should start using Indian-based teachers. Smart, inexpensive, English-speaking Indians already help Americans with software design, computer support and tax preparation. Through satellites and the Internet workers in India can be connected, with mere millisecond delays, to Americans in need. Outsourcing jobs to India has saved Americans billions while actually increasing the quality and competitiveness of many of our industries. We should now apply outsourcing to education, the American industry most in need of improvement.

Like most teachers, I find grading to be the least interesting aspect of my job. I would gladly teach extra classes if I could in return be freed from the drudgery of grading. My employer, Smith College, should hire a few score smart Indians to grade for their faculty and in return Smith should expect its professors to spend more time in the classroom.

High schools should similarly outsource their grading to Indians. Because U.S. teachers find grading so mind-numbingly boring, outsourcing grading would make teaching a far more attractive profession, thereby allowing high schools to recruit better teachers without necessarily having to increase salaries.

I suspect that Indians would do a far better job grading than U.S. teachers currently do. Because of their much lower average standard of living, earning a few dollars an hour grading American school assignments would be a fantastic job for many talented Indians. Indians would therefore bring an enthusiasm to grading that most American teachers, including myself, lack.

Indians, moreover, could do more than just grade papers. They could run entire classes. Online college courses such as those offered by the University of Phoenix show the possibility of teaching via the Internet, and teenagers' love of video games proves that students are capable of long-term thoughtful interactions with their computer. High schools and colleges should use the Internet to have some of their classes remotely taught. The teachers would have audio and video connections with their American students. It would be prohibitively expensive to hire one American teacher for every five students. But because wages in India are so much lower than in the U.S., schools could afford, say, 5:1 student: teacher ratios if they outsourced education.

Of course, teachers in India wouldn't be able to discipline their American students, so the outsourcing would only work for well-behaved students. But students with Indian teachers could benefit from large amounts of individual "face" time with their instructors. Low student / teacher ratios would also allow schools to offer a diversity of classes that they couldn't afford without using outsourcing.

High school math and science programs would greatly benefit from outsourcing. Because American adults with strong math and science skills have very good job prospects, it's difficult for high schools to attract strong teachers in these fields. But for wages far below what even high school food service workers make, very talented and technically proficient Indians would love to become teachers.

If Indians weren't permitted to teach entire classes, they could at least act as tutors or teaching assistants. Every high school math teacher, for example, could be given an Indian helper who would be available from 5-10 pm each night to help students with their homework. To prevent any child from being left behind, schools could give students in danger of failing two hours of individual tutoring time with an Indian teacher each weeknight. And at the other end of achievement gifted students could be assigned tutors who would facilitate their exploration of advanced topics.

Outsourcing wouldn't have to be limited to hiring Indians, and indeed foreign language classes could greatly benefit from outsourcing teaching to non-English speaking countries. For example, given the large number of poor people in the world who speak and write Spanish, there is no reason every American taking Spanish shouldn't have his own private instructor. Even earning just $2 an hour would be a fantastic life-changing wage for many Spanish speakers, yet at this low wage schools could afford to hire private teachers for each of their students.

Ironically, outsourcing education would make it easier for parents to home school their children. While staying at home, children could use the Internet to connect with teachers across the world. Parents, furthermore, would have many possible classes and teachers to choose from and so could insure that their children's education reflected their parental values.

Having U.S. students taught by foreigners would increase Americans' knowledge of other cultures. Rather than merely reading about other peoples, our students would get to talk with people throughout the world. Similarly, outsourcing education would allow many foreigners to interact directly with Americans and not base their judgments of us on how Americans are depicted in Hollywood movies.

Some of the best minds on the planet are trapped in poor countries, currently doomed to a miserable standard of living. But through educational outsourcing U.S. schools could directly tap these minds employing them to teach our children. Such outsourcing would not only lift many third world people out of poverty but also help the U.S. grow her 21st century knowledge economy.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.


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