Turns out the union didn’t like PeerScholar, a system for facilitating peer-reviewing in large classes.
From the National Post:
Congratulations to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which has achieved another milestone in its ongoing quest to propagate the belief that public-sector unions are inherent, dedicated enemies of growth and innovation. In Friday’s Post, Emily Senger and Kathryn Blaze Carlson described CUPE’s successful grievance against the developers of PeerScholar, a new online application created at the University of Toronto that allows students to file short papers which are then graded and annotated, in an environment of mutual anonymity, by fellow class members who have completed the same assignment.
CUPE, which represents teaching assistants at U of T, took the view that, in the words of spokesman Mikael Swayze, “If students are doing marking, then they’re in our bargaining unit and must be paid.” In
short, the union — in blocking the use of PeerScholar within an enormous first-year psychology class — was merely defending its own interests against a low-cost alternative to having TAs grade written material.
Perhaps no one could hold that against CUPE if the only harm done was to make higher education more expensive. As a society, we claim to care a great deal about keeping university accessible to the poor and affordable for the middle class; sometimes do-gooders will even say that our future competitiveness and prosperity depend on it. But these people can be ignored. If we did care we would never, under any circumstances, give a labour cartel a veto over a professor’s conduct of his class.
We also claim to care a great deal about the quality of education — another premise that CUPE has pretty well refuted. In the case of Professor Steve Joordens’ psych class, the alternative to having written assignments peer-marked was not to have written assignments marked by unionized TAs, but to have no written assignments at all. He will now have to return to the same traditional practice followed in most introductory psych classes: basing grades entirely on machine-readable multiple-choice exams. This has always been a feature of psych classes that lazy, sly undergraduates liked, because it favours guessing ability over grasp of the course content and skill at writing and argumentation.
The very possibility of bringing about change to the factory-like environment of undergraduate survey courses was a major breakthrough for Joordens, who developed Peer-Scholar with his grad student Dwayne Pare. Peer grading may sound like a loopy idea, but early research by Joordens and Pare showed that for a simple assignment involving a written reaction to a set text, peer grading is statistically indistinguishable from “expert” grading by trained graduate students — if you have enough peers.
The magic number for maximum validity appears to be about six, so the PeerScholar interface makes each student grade six colleagues’ papers after they hand in their own. The peer grading is formally made part of the assignment, and students get the benefit of comparing other work to their own. Students who felt their grade was unfair were permitted to appeal to a teaching assistant, on condition that they had to live with the new grade whether it was higher or lower.
PeerScholar was a research project worth pursuing for its own sake, but the Ontario Superior Court’s support for CUPE’s grievance means that the Joordens/Pare research will be very difficult to reproduce scientifically, under real-world conditions, inside Ontario. It also means that PeerScholar, as a made-in-Ontario software application, will be hard to sell to colleges and universities where teaching assistants are unionized. And the potential for Peer-Scholar to improve the quality of large first-year survey classes may never be realized. How often does a labour union, with one single action, harm science, education and business all at once? What an astonishing hat trick of ignorance and greed; doff your lids, readers.