When Outsourcing Isn't

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Chronicle of Higher Education features a fascinating article about students who "outsource" their college writing assignments -- sometimes including dissertations! -- overseas to essay mills. Most of the article focuses on the shady nature of one such mill in particular, how orders are processed, and what might motivate the participants in such a transaction.

Needless to say, the article finds more than one parallel to the economic phenomenon of outsourcing, particularly as made possible by the great efficiency of today's electronic communications across the globe. In fact, it holds out these essays-for-hire as examples of outsourcing: "Just as many American companies are outsourcing their administrative tasks, many American students are perfectly willing to outsource their academic work."

But are they?

According to one dictionary, to outsource means, "to obtain goods or services from an outside source." The usual understanding for the motivational context of the term comes from business, but it certainly applies to individuals, as indicated by another definition of outsourcing: "To send out (work, for example) to an outside provider or manufacturer in order to cut costs."

The term, which verges on the superfluous, ends up in practice simply describing any recent application of the law of comparative advantage. Its main utility seems to be in pointing out just how well recent technological advances have created new opportunities to do this.

So, in a literal, context-dropping, and short-sighted sense, one could certainly say that the students are outsourcing their essays. They don't have adequate time for the immediate assignment (or, worse, to learn the research or writing skills they need in order to do the work), but they have money on hand to pay someone who has, to produce the essay. They save on time by paying the essay mill money that they value less than this time.

But the comparison to outsourcing breaks down when the legitimate purpose of the course work is considered, and that is precisely for the student to acquire skills in writing and research, not to mention experience thinking about the material of the course. This is ideally the whole reason a student is attending the class, and it is something that, by its very nature, cannot be outsourced. It is this fact which demolishes even the best legitimate-sounding reason to use an essay mill I saw in the article, which is, "to use it to get ideas." You cannot pay someone to acquire skills and experience on your behalf. Most or all of the students participating in these transactions are cheating themselves.

Having said that, and still not to excuse this practice, one issue driving the growth of modern essay mills remained unmentioned, although the article brushed very closely with it: What is an education for?

But [Notre Dame Associate Professor Susan D.] Blum points out a more fundamental issue. She thinks professors and administrators need to do a better job of talking to students about what college is about and why studying -- which may seem like a meaningless obstacle on the path to a credential -- actually matters. "Why do they have to go through the process of researching?" she says. "We need to convey that to them."
Thanks to progressive education and credentialism, which feed off one another, students are too focused on the marks they will get for an assignment or a course, rather than the vital improvements to their minds that they will get out of a course. And often, many are accustomed to getting very little of the latter. To that extent, the urge to "outsource" is understandable.

The "progressives", by setting education against the process of fostering the rational faculty, have severed it from its proper, selfish role to the student in more ways than one. (e.g., Even if you can get the students to appreciate thinking about one course in particular, you won't necessarily get them to generalize the lesson to all disciplines. They won't necessarily know how to generalize.)

Pragmatic credentialists finish the job of making a time-wasting joke out of education by attempting to bypass the work of evaluating how well any given individual has mastered his material and can apply it to the tasks he needs to perform in order to help a future employer and thus to make a living.

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

There is a common attitude among students today that they are simply getting their card punched--obtaining paper credentials that will put them into a higher income bracket. They paid their money, and now they demand their certificate.

Gus Van Horn said...

"There is a common attitude among students today..."

Too bad for them.

Can you pity and despise someone at the same time? I suspect so.

Jim said...

Excellent piece.

In the sense that a diploma is a union card to get a job, it reminds me how reasonable recruitment practices, such as knowledge testing, have been undermined by past effort to fighting racial discrimination. It is time to re-examine removing outdated standards that "might" have been relevant 30 or 40 years ago.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jim.

Also feeding into credentialism is the fact that in our deficient educational system, college has become "the new high school." Just having a high school diploma -- which would be suficient for most work, if the high schools were doing their job -- is viewed as "not enough" whether it really is of really isn't. And that is because, as you pointed out, employers aren't testing anyone.

I am sure that "works" the other way around too: Lots of people with the right "papers" (but missing the necessary skills) get jobs.

z said...

This reminded me of what I observe in the attitudes' of my children towards their schoolwork. I've noticed that when a project is due, they look at it as something they have to "turn in", rather than something to learn. I believe many kids these days hand in reports that they wrote as they were reading on the subject, rather than reading first, then writing. Instead of looking at it as an opportunity to know something about "geysers", or "Greece", they look at it as a hurdle to get over and keep going. Its a shame and a real waste of kids' time.

Gus Van Horn said...

As long as there are assignments and grades, you will see that problem to varying degrees. Coming from poor students and poorly-taught ones, this is no surprise. It's when the attitude is predominant, and I think it is now, that it is an indication that something is seriously wrong.

Children are naturally curious, and our socialized education system, with its entrenched orthodoxies, is killing youthful curiosity.

Mo said...

that us very true indeed. i think assignments and grades hinder the learning process to a significant extent. I remember back in the days of my Bachelor degree in chemistry getting an A in inorganic chemistry but coming empty handed out of it. you just go through the process and really don't have time to learn and experiment. on the other hand i went through a full year "special topics" paper and despite getting a B I learnt heaps and this has helped in getting several job offers.

Gus Van Horn said...

I am sure you are not alone there.

Your type of negative experience -- making good grades, but learning little -- along with the undue pressure some students seem to feel with having to make good grades, lends surface credibility to certain arguments I seem to recall being made by progressives against having standards at all.

The problem, of course, is not standards per se, but having poorly-formulated standards.