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.
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.