Thursday, April 4, 2013

About machine-scoring

In the New York Times, a report on machine-scoring college writing:

Imagine taking a college exam, and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program. . . .

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.
It is worth asking: is this scheme meant to “free” professors for other tasks, or for unemployment? Machine-scoring seems to point toward a future in which the human presence is ever more superfluous for the work of teaching and learning.

Especially galling is the claim, from University of Akron professor Mark D. Shermis, that critics of machine-scoring tend to come from the nation’s elite schools, where human beings do a much better job than machines. “There seems to be,” he says, “a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world.” Indeed. The great variety of institutional affiliations represented by the signers of the Human Readers petition against machine-scoring suggests that opposition to the practice extends well beyond elite schools. Thoughtful and helpful evaluations of student writing by what the Times article calls “human graders” can be found at all levels as well.

My mantra re: technology, which I will now repeat (because that’s what makes it a mantra): technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them. And its converse: technology makes it possible not to do things, not necessary not to do them.

comments: 5

Pete said...

When I read that, I couldn't help wondering if those "other tasks" included academic infighting and backstabbing. Grading exams is part of the job. If professors don't like doing it, they should find other work.

Michael Leddy said...

MOOCs threaten to free us from the task of teaching classes too, which doesn’t leave much else to do. I think any prof who sees machine-scoring as freedom from anything needs to have her or his head examined. :)

zzi said...

Fairness is what counts. I see this a to be a very fair way of grading. There will be no prejudice.

Michael Leddy said...

Really? Algorithms that value, for instance, greater numbers of polysyllabic words represent a particular idea of what counts as good writing. The Human Readers site describes machine scoring as “trivial, rating essays only on surface features such as word size, topic vocabulary, and essay length; reductive, handling extended prose written only at a grade-school level; inaccurate, missing much error in student writing and finding much error where it does not exist; undiagnostic, correlating hardly at all with subsequent writing performance; unfair, discriminating against minority groups and second-language writers; secretive, with testing companies blocking independent research into their products.”

It seems to me that machine-scoring is useful only in an educational system with ever greater inequalities of opportunity: the privileged few working with real teachers (or “human graders”) while others have access to a twenty-first-century of a correspondence school, with machines instead of Famous Writers doing the work of evaluation.

(I’ve added semicolons to the quotation to make it readable as regular prose.)

Michael Leddy said...

Oops — a twenty-first century version of a correspondence school.