Make or Buy, Homework Grading Edition

Q: When are we going to get our tests back?

A: When I get them back from Bangalore.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece about outsourcing of homework grading to markers in India via the firm, Virtual-TA.  No, papers aren’t physically sent to India to be graded, but rather the transaction is done electronically.

Is that ethical?

Well, the story profiles Lori Whisenant, the director of business law and ethics studies at the University of Houston.  So the ethics professor thinks it’s ethical. Or maybe that’s just how they roll down in Texas?

That dimension aside, we spend a lot of time talking about the outsourcing/insourcing decision in Economics 450, and one of the main drivers for doing something yourself is the specificity, not necessarily the complexity, of the task.  And this comes out in the article a little bit:

Critics of outsourced grading, however, say the lack of a personal relationship is a problem.

“An outside grader has no insight into how classroom discussion may have played into what a student wrote in their paper…  Are they able to say, ‘Oh, I understand where that came from’ or ‘I understand why they thought that, because Mary said that in class’?”

On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that the Virtual-TA is playing favorites.

The whole story reminds me of the opening of Ed Leamer’s classic review of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat:

When the Journal of Economic Literature asked me to write a review of The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, I responded with enthusiasm, knowing it wouldn’t take much effort on my part. As soon as I received a copy of the book, I shipped it overnight by UPS to India to have the work done. I was promised a one-day turn-around for a fee of $100. Here is what I received by e-mail the next day: “This book is truly marvelous. It will surely change the course of human history.” That struck me as possibly accurate but a bit too short and too generic to make the JEL happy, and I decided, with great disappointment, to do the work myself.

It was only a matter of time.