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Robot graders for the poor

April 5, 2013

Robot by Morgon MaeHaving stayed up late last night grading student essays, it was a special treat this morning to read on the front page of the New York Times that new grading software could have completed my work in seconds.

Essay grading software has been around for a while, but the article reports that EdX, a Harvard-MIT nonprofit online education provider, has developed new and improved software that will be available free online.

The problem is not only that such efforts exaggerate the educational potential of automated grading. And I could actually imagine that students might find it useful for improving early drafts of their papers, which they could then submit to a professor for evaluation and discussion.

What really bothers me is the gee-whiz reporting on educational technology, ignoring the economic conditions and political choices that got us into this mess.

The Hewlett Foundation recently sponsored a contest for designers of essay grading software, and one of the winners is now working on the project for EdX. The Times article reports:

“One of our focuses is to help kids learn how to think critically,” said Victor Vuchic, a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. “It’s probably impossible to do that with multiple-choice tests. The challenge is that this requires human graders, and so they cost a lot more and they take a lot more time.”

This statement implicitly acknowledges the economic pressures driving the recent MOOC craze, but the article says nothing about such pressures. The article then summarizes the comments of Mark D. Shermis, a professor who supervised the contest:

With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said. Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.

It’s doubtful that undergraduates at “the nation’s best universities” are more likely to enjoy professors with high-level classroom pedagogy, given that most such universities reward their faculty almost entirely for research and not teaching. And to the extent that the “level of pedagogy” is better at elite schools, my guess is that it’s primarily due to better conditions (smaller classes, lower faculty teaching loads, more resources), rather than better faculty pedagogy as such.

But what’s really infuriating about such statements is the way they treat “increasingly large classes” as a natural event, rather than the result of political decisions. For decades now, politicians and administrators have systematically defunded public higher education, and now we’re being told that the only remedy is to replace faculty with robots.

And even worse, the economic pressures that make automated grading seem attractive could easily lead to further degradation of academic work. As Jonathan Rees wrote a year ago:

Once you demonstrate that you can handle 50 essays per week with this new automated tool, they’re not going let you start assigning two essays per week. They’re going to double the size of the class to 100. Why? Because they can, that’s why. . . . The goal of automation is not to provide a better education. It’s to save taxpayers and students money.

So it really misses the point to argue about whether automated grading is good pedagogy. Let’s talk about the money.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2013 2:47 PM

    Great post. Right on. The other thing I was thinking this morning when I read the article is this: The poorer a university is, the more it will start to rely on technological crutches once they become cheap enough, because they can serve more kids with fewer faculty/TAs/Reader/Lecturers and whoever else does grading. Eventually, you’ll only get access to “real” faculty if you can pay the money, or if you’re the kind of kid that gets into the top schools.

    What would actually be good about such software is its potential to become a tutor, and do what the tutors in the Student Help Center here at UCD do now. Give instant feedback on the sentence level. A sort of sophisticated spell/grammar check.




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