While most people here and elsewhere seem to have appreciated my essay about the futility of peer grading from Inside Higher Ed last week, I have seen enough serious critiques that I want to defend myself here. While I certainly understand why any superprofessor would want to teach the best MOOCs they can teach, I nonetheless offer what follows as a reality check.
Debbie Morrison, who is open-minded enough to read this blog even though it might well be the polar opposite of hers, rebuts my argument by citing research which suggests the circumstances under which peer grading can be effective:
1) When learners are at a similar skill level.
2) When assignments are low stakes [i.e. when a course is taken for professional development of personal interest...]
3) Where credit is not granted
4) When learners are mature, self-directed and motivated.
5) When learners have experience in learning and navigating within a networked setting [if the review is completed in an open and online setting.]
6) Learners have a developed set of communication skills.
The breakdown in peer grading occurs when the learning environment cannot provide the conditions as mentioned above.
Now that’s all well and good, but the sheer massiveness of a MOOC combined with Coursera’s obligation towards its investors to eventually turn a profit pretty much assures that every single one of those conditions will be violated at one point or another. More importantly, the rich university administrations that produce course content as well as the poor university administrations that long to replace their faculty with videotaped superprofessors and poorly-paid teaching assistants have every incentive in the world to break every one of those conditions too.
The other critique I particularly appreciated appeared very late in the week at the bottom of the comments to my original article. Its author signed in as “EnglishTeacher,” and went through the same peer grading process I did as a student in Jeremy Adelman’s course. They write:
“No one has ever claimed that MOOCs do, can or should replace the full learning experience available to those fortunate enough to be able to be in an engaged on-campus classroom. And no one has ever claimed that students can take the place of humanities professors.”
Actually, Daphne Koller of Coursera just claimed that students can do a BETTER job at grading essays than humanities professors about a week and a half ago. With respect to taking over the rest of any particular professor’s job, if the superprofessor provides all the content and student peers do all the grading, what exactly is left? Not bloody much. Yes, we can go from desk to desk like my high school math teacher used to do while we worked through our algebra problems, but what kind of wage is that going to get us (particularly as most professors don’t have union representation like so many secondary school teachers do)?
I admire everyone who wants to experiment with new technology to make higher education better for their students. I really do. Unfortunately, while those people bang their heads against a wall as part of a futile quest to build a better mousetrap than the one we already have, the powers that be will still be doing their best to make us all technologically unemployed whether robots can do our jobs any better or not.
In the end, the value of peer grading comes down this: Who can do a better job at grading students essays, peers or professors? If the answer is “peers,” then why do professors exist at all?* If the answer is “professors,” then why are so many people wasting their time trying to figure out a way to make the wrong answer right? As David Golumbia has explained:
MOOCs are being deployed specifically as part of an economic argument whose consequences for liberal arts education are designed to be explosive: they are designed to make liberal arts education emerge as too expensive for us to afford.
Peer grading, like the MOOCs it facilitates, is designed to make the unacceptable acceptable. It is a strategy created to fit the contours of permanent austerity rather than for the benefit of our students. So while I agree that pigs look better with lipstick on them, that doesn’t mean the pig becomes any less porcine.
Should anyone choose to keep banging away at the peer grading problem anyway then be my guest. Just remember that you have been warned, not just about your prospects for ultimate success, but also of the larger political context in which that banging must inevitably occur.
* By the way, I expect the resignation letters of all humanities professors who answer this way to be tendered as soon as they have time to pack up their offices.