You’re going to miss grading when it’s gone.

16 03 2012

You think it’s hard to find an academic job now? Just wait until machines start grading student essays and students start grading each other. Combine these developments with our glorious all-online higher ed future and they won’t need you anymore at all.

I can hear you now: “Surely you jest, Jonathan. You’ve been reading stuff in the Onion and forgetting it’s satire, right?” Alas, not this time. Here’s part of the executive summary of a Pearson white paper (.pdf) on their automatic essay grading technology:

In the 1990s, the people of Pearson’s Knowledge Technologies group (KT) invented many of the key techniques that enable automatic scoring of constructed language in assessment tasks. In the succeeding 15 years, Pearson has assembled these researchers into an advanced development group with an intellectual property base that is unparalleled in the assessment field. Now, working as a unique stand-alone group inside Pearson, KT has automatically scored many millions of written and spoken responses. KT has measured core language and literacy skills as evidenced in students’ constructed responses. Similar tasks also elicit responses that are assessed for content knowledge. In 2010 KT scored over 20 million spoken and written responses from all over the globe.

You don’t do this sort of thing because it offers a better critique of written work than a living, breathing person does. You do it because it’s cheaper. Much cheaper. More importantly, the labor cost savings can go to football, climbing walls in the gym or just higher administrative salaries. And Pearson doesn’t make out too badly either.

If all of this reminds you of late-nineteenth century industrialization, then you’re not alone. Unfortunately, some of the most enthusiastic proponents of technology in education seem to think that the economic displacement of the industrial era is worth duplicating. This guest post from ProfHacker recounts a recent highered navel-gazing conference at Rice:

Cathy Davidson and John Seely Brown (JSB) articulated learning frameworks for the fluid, dynamic Digital Age rather than the Industrial Age. Davidson explained that many of the practices we associate with education, including multiple choice tests and attention to task, were designed to serve the needs of the Industrial Age for standardization and a regulated labor force. In contrast, the Digital Age calls for mash-ups, customization, multi-tasking, data mining, and collaboration by difference. Davidson suggested that we should ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.

[Emphasis added]

So let me get this straight: We should turnover the reins in our own classes to machines and social algorithms because the workplace is full of machines and social algorithms? Vocational education for everyone! Better yet, let students create their own vocational education!!! Maybe they can design their own jobs too. I just hope they don’t want to become professors.

As I explained the last time I mentioned Cathy Davidson, I find her total obliviousness to the collateral damage these kinds of changes will cause extremely disturbing. However, I find the fact that so many faculty members are willing to actively participate in the destruction of their own profession even more disturbing.

If I remember my old labor history right, in his A Theory of the Labor Movement the economist Selig Perlman described American workers as job conscious as opposed to class conscious. That means that they were more concerned with putting bread and butter on the table than they were with banding together to overthrow the capitalist system. To Perlman, that was a good thing. If only academics thought that way! Too many professors writing about the future of higher ed don’t seem to care about their own long-term material well-being, which makes me think again about how much we faculty could all learn from the folks who work at Walmart.

I guarantee you that most administrators would never make this same mistake. Their own long-term material well-being is probably why they became administrators in the first place.

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5 responses

16 03 2012
missprofessorcasey

Even if you put aside the well-being of those who teach, what about the well-being of those who are trying to learn? Most students despise writing as it is (I know, I teach freshman comp); I can’t imagine that getting back a computerized grade sheet (that no human actually looked it) is going to make it better. I can hear their arguments now. “Missprofessor, I don’t get it. It’s not like you take the time to grade the essays. A computer does it. So why do I have to take the time to write the essay? Why can’t I get it off a computer? That’s all you’re doing anyway.”

And yes, my students are sassy enough to say things like that.

17 03 2012
Historiann

I agree with missprofessorcasey–I think many (if not most) of my students would be insulted by a computerized evaluation of their essays. At least, the ones who give a crap and actually worked hard on their papers would be cheesed–and rightfully so!

Re: online ed in Colorado, I hear that Grace Hood at KUNC is going to report on K-12 online ed on Monday morning, something that she’s spent 6 months looking into. You may want to check out the website if you don’t get that station down in Pueblo. (Watch my blog early next week–I’ll probably report on it.)

19 03 2012
“I don’t know why I love her like I do. All the trouble that you put me through.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] will also maintain my ability to challenge any orthodoxy I want. However, if I give up the power to grade my own papers or write my own syllabus to the will of the collective, then my class (not to mention my life) will be subject to forces [...]

12 04 2012
“Ethel…I think we’re fighting a losing game.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] things to do myself before the end of the afternoon, I think I’ll just quote myself from the last time I brought up automated grading software: You don’t do this sort of thing because it offers a better critique of written work than a [...]

27 05 2012
CA Spengel

Forget the professors– the students deserve better! I taught a few freshman algebra courses in the last ten years before I retired, Our university was encouraging the use of “on-line resources”.

In one case, on-line homework, problems were individualized (with differing numbers) and graded automatically by a Pearson program. Receiving complaints from my students, I tried these automated exercises myself. The frustrations were endless, including machine rejection of perfect answers. Further, their program offered “help” in the form of step-by-step guidance through the problem; I stopped assigning work in their system when my students were being taught poor methods by the Pearson program.

Also disgusted with the commercial offerings, a fellow faculty member created his own automated homework system, also with problems individualized by varying the numbers. Students wasted much precious time trying to complete problems with awkward numbers. Machine rejection of correct answers frustrated them, and often caused them to doubt their understanding, when in fact they should have had their confidence confirmed.

My word processor wants to correct my spelling when I use an unfamiliar word; grammar checkers also fail when confronted with less-than-simple constructions. So I doubt that automated essay grading would impress me more than the above-described mathematics grading.

Bottom line– machine grading does NOT measure up to careful human evaluation.

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