Posted by: crudbasher | April 5, 2013

Implications of Machine Graded Essays

In the last couple of days there has been somewhat of a firestorm about a plan by EdX to have computerized grading of essays submitted by their college students. Obviously there is a bit of backlash from teachers. I had some thoughts about this.

From the story in KurzweilAI

Imagine taking a college exam and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program. Then immediately redoing the test to try to improve your grade.

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such software. It can grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks, The New York Times reports.

My current job involves programming so I understand how this sort of thing works. It’s not impossible and could even be decently done. The way a teacher grades an essay follows a pattern. They look for certain things and tend to do each essay the same way. All of this then can be programmed into a computer. In fact, the way the system seems to work is the teachers grade 100 essays and the computer learns how to do it. Then it can take over from there.

However, if you can auto grade an essay it should be possible to write a program to generate an essay that could fool the grader. It would be ironic to have machines grading essays written by other machines.



The benefits of instant feedback though could be worth it. A student can write an essay and then rewrite it based on rapid feedback as long as the feedback was helpful. You get to be a better writer by writing a lot. Having an automatic way to get feedback can help permit more writing.

Obviously many teachers will feel threatened by this. To a certain extent I can understand that but this is an inevitable process. The IT age we are in has to do with disaggregating bundles of skills and seeing if there is a way to automate them or make people more productive. Teachers have so far resisted being made more efficient but I think that is going to have to change. If the only value of a teacher is to grade essays by hand, then they deserve to be replaced by a machine. As a former teacher I would have loved a machine to do my grading. I could have used that time to work on curriculum and my own skills, which would have been a better use of my time.






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