Automated Education: Good Enough?

In “From Kafka to Computers, a Graphic History of Automation in Education,” Megan O’Neil discusses a new commentary published on the debate about the role of technology in education.  Automated Teaching Machine: A Graphic Introduction to the End of Human Teachers,” created by Adam Bessie and Arthur King, teachers of English and Studio and Computer Arts at Diablo Valley College in California, was apparently inspired by the introduction of an automated reading machine to score English-placement assessments at their college.  O’Neil quotes Mr. Bessie: 

“Previously, English-department faculty members had created and reviewed the assessments manually, a collective exercise that gave them the opportunity to discuss standards… We were told that the robo-reader could do the same job as us for cheaper, which seemed an absurd notion… I had, before this, never heard of a robo-reader and thought that I had the one job that couldn’t be automated: that written human communication was one area that technology could augment, but not replace.”

The comic traces efforts to automate and mechanize education.  According to Bessie and King:

  • It is a commentary on the “systematic removal of the student-mentor relationship, and it’s that one-on-one relationship that really helps to best guide each student through the learning process,”
  • “The mechanization of the learning process removes those subtleties that an instructor can pick up on a student-by-student basis.”
  • “If the public knows about the direction that education is taking, and can have a frank and insightful conversation…we can empower ourselves to restore the human and democratic potential of our public educational institutions.”

[Mr. Bessie has previously worked with the Dan Archer to create a three-part comic series titled “The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum: The High Price of Education Reform,” which provides commentary on topics such as standardized testing, among other things.]

Though criticized, the automated grading of written assignments is becoming more and more popular, and not only among MOOCS.  In “Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break,” John Markoff asks readers to 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.”  Markoff discusses how EdX, a nonprofit enterprise that offers 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.

Automated grading systems for multiple-choice and true-false tests are common, however, “the use of artificial intelligence technology to grade essay answers has not yet received widespread endorsement by educators and has many critics.”  In defense of this artificial intelligence, Markoff quotes Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, who sees instant feedback as invaluable to students, in his prediction that the instant-grading software would be a useful pedagogical tool, “enabling students to take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers,” which would give great advantages over the current and traditional classroom system, where students often have to wait for their grades.

Markoff doesn’t fail to mention the skeptics who claim the automated system is no match for live teachers, i.e. Les Perelman.  Perelman is known for putting together nonsense essays that have fooled software grading programs into giving high marks, and is part of a group that opposes automated assessment software called Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment.  This group claims that computers cannot “read,” focusing on their inability to “measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.”

EdX expects its software to be adopted widely by schools and universities.  Dr. Agarwal said he believed that the software was nearing the capability of human grading.  “This is machine learning and there is a long way to go, but it’s good enough and the upside is huge,” he said.

Good enough?  What do you think?


September Provisions: Teaching Undergraduate Research

The September Provisions session focused on the topic of Teaching Undergraduate Research.  The presenters included Rick Thompson, Dean of the School of Math & Sciences, David Morrow, Associate Professor of English, and Brian Jensen, Associate Professor, the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences.

Dr. Jensen began his presentation by explaining what he perceives to be the advantages of undergraduate research.  From his perspective, undergraduate independent research projects have two major advantages for students:

1) the opportunity to work with faculty 1-1, where the student can work with the faculty at the level that they are at. The key is that faculty needs to be aware of that level, where they can help raise the lower level up, as well as push the higher level forward;

2) the research is the closest thing to having a graduate school experience.

How Dr. Jensen finds undergraduate research differs from graduate research:

  • In graduate school, it is commonplace to design a program of study between student and faculty.  When it comes to the undergraduate level, Dr. Jensen chooses to not take on new students for research, and notes that he spends a lot of back-and-forth time with undergraduate students.
  • In graduate school, students inherently take more ownership.  At the undergraduate level, Jensen finds it helpful to provide students with material to read, and asks them to come back with questions and an idea of how they would like to approach the research.  He finds it tricky with the undergraduate students as far as finding the balance between when he needs to redirect (which he does more frequently in regards to technicalities) versus when he needs to let them go (which he typically gives them more time with when it comes to cognitive struggles).
  • At the undergraduate level, Dr. Jensen feels that one of the biggest differences is that the undergrad mainly just takes what they can from the literature, while the grad student is more so about making a contribution to the conversation.  Dr. Jensen finds this difference most challenging, and has had success in encouraging students to be fearless and accept the idea that they are transitioning from student to expert, with the goal of possibly presenting at conferences.
Drawing courtesy of Dr. Jensen's daughter.

Drawing courtesy of Dr. Jensen’s daughter.

Dr. Morrow presented on some of the struggles of undergraduate research within the English realm.  One of the biggest challenges that Dr. Morrow finds with undergraduate students is getting them to engage with the complexity of texts in regards to how they are enmeshed in the society they were produced in.  In other words, the struggle lies in historicizing the text, contemplating how it engages with the context it was written in.  This type of work requires a complex view of history and society, but according to Dr. Morrow, unfortunately, many undergraduate students view people in history in very absolute terms.  Not to mention, covering history requires extra time, and the reality of the situation is that students are not as prepared as professors would like them to be.  The task is to somehow get the students to historicize and take the time to do this extra research without snuffing out their interest.  Put another way, the challenge lies in figuring out how to cultivate and perpetuate the students’ interests.

Rick Thompson provided the faculty with an excellent overview of CUR.  You can find his presentation here: CUR Presentation.  You can also find sample publications put out by CUR, which Dr. Thompson brought to the session, on reserve in The College of Saint Rose’s Library.  They are available if you search the Library’s catalog under course reserves for Richard Thompson as the professor and “Provisions” as the course.  Additionally: the journal Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly is available from Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson) from 2008 to present.

Don’t forget to check out The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the College of Saint Rose here.

Undergraduate Research: an Introduction

In anticipation of our next Provisions session on TuesdaySeptember 17th, here is a little background on the topic of undergraduate research.

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”  The CUR and its affiliated colleges, universities, and individuals share a focus on providing undergraduate research opportunities for faculty and students at all institutions serving undergraduate students, as they believe that faculty members enhance their teaching and contribution to society by remaining active in research and by involving undergraduates in research.  

In “What Good Is Undergraduate Research, Anyway?,” Lila Guterman discusses the results of studies done to systematically study the effects of undergraduate research on students, which both verified some widely held notions about undergraduate research as well as challenged other assumptions.  Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of undergraduate research that she relates throughout her article:


  • Undergraduates learn and grow significantly from their research experiences.
  • There are cognitive and personal benefits for students, including gaining self-confidence.
  • Students learn how to handle uncertainty and how to work on problems without clear solutions.
  • Francis R. Blase, an associate professor of chemistry at Haverford, cites the personal rewards of working in the lab with her students. “I have so much fun with them,” she says. “They’re young, they’re fun, they’re enthusiastic, they have good ideas.”


  • Students require a strong mentor relationship to reap the benefits of undergraduate research, which is a time commitment that may cost faculty members more than they gain from the additional lab help.
  • “It’s a huge time investment,” says Mr. Plante, of Penn. “You do have to do a lot of hand-holding.”
  • Robert S. Manning, an associate professor of mathematics at Haverford, admits, “It’s pretty rare that an undergraduate project would create a paper that wasn’t already under way.”
  • In many interviews, faculty members mentioned the costs of doing research with undergraduates twice as often as the benefits.
  • Colleges don’t always do a good job of compensating faculty members for their efforts.  “Institutions see student labor help as a reward enough,” but “faculty honestly state they could get their research done a lot faster if they weren’t working with a student.”
  • Are the positive results of undergraduate research biased? Students who do research tend to already be among the strongest students: “Are we picking winners or are we creating winners?” Mr. Bruns, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, asks. “I don’t know.”

In “Undergraduate Research: Showcasing Young Scholars,” David Chapman talks about the purpose and meaning of undergraduate research, noting that it would be a mistake to think of undergraduate research only as graduate research on a smaller scale.

If undergraduate research is not the same thing as graduate research, Chapman asks what is it, and why should a university support it?  The selling point for Chapman is in the reversal of the skepticism he sees in students in regards to the importance of higher education that many undergraduates come to college with, where “they know they want a degree, but they are not sure they want an education.”

Chapman writes that what is refreshing about the end result is observing the undergraduates who came “caring only about fast cars and pop music,” and are now suddenly beginning to see how different disciplines relate to each other, how “the past can teach us something about the future;” in other words, he writes, “they grow more like us.”

Chapman uses the analogy of collegiate athletics, where coaches argue that participation in collegiate athletics builds teamwork and character, a permanent contribution to students’ lives, and says that in the same way, undergraduate research is excellent preparation for any career.

In addition, Chapman argues that undergraduate projects are a way for departments to evaluate themselves and is a way of celebrating what is valued most in academe, the “accomplishments of our students and the efforts of everyone who has helped them along the way.”

He believes that given the value of undergraduate research for not only students, but faculty members and the university as a whole, “it is regrettable that only a fraction of American college students have the opportunity to engage in extended research projects.”

In “How to Find Students’ Inner Geek,” Marc Zimmer states that by the time students reach college, they have matured and no longer “jump up and down so that they can be the first to ask the teacher their questions.”  Zimmer, focused specifically on undergraduate research in the field of science, believes that to reach the scientist within those students who don’t seem to “hunger for science,” undergraduate research can be used as “extra-super-duper bait.”  The struggle, as Zimmer sees it, is that undergraduate research has to be made attractive to “teenagers who often have completely different social, cultural, and scientific backgrounds.”

In Zimmer’s mind, undergraduate research often is most successful in small, liberal-arts colleges where research experiences are more personalized and class sizes are smaller.  Zimmer notes that research has shown that it takes “one and a half to two years to establish a mentoring relationship in a university setting,” but in his experience, “the liberal-arts setting, and especially a one-on-one research relationship, speeds up that process and is very effective at breaking down barriers between professors and students.”

In order to “hook” students early and keep them interested in doing research, Zimmer offers up some helpful hints that have been successful for him:

  • I have changed how I think and talk about my research, especially when I am trying to lure undergraduates into it.
  • Students need role models. I often brag about “fish” (students) I have caught in the past, and whenever possible I bring those students to class so my current students can see what opportunities are available to them, and what they can accomplish.
  • The first exposure to scientific research can be intimidating. I try to make the lab a friendly place, and I spend a lot of one-on-one time with my research students, not all of it in the lab.
  • Professional meetings are an important part of the research training of our students, so I have gone out of my way to find funds to send my students to chemistry conferences.

Don’t forget to join us on Tuesday, September 17th at 12:00pm in Standish A/B to hear from Rick Thompson, Dean of the School of Math & Sciences, David Morrow, Associate Professor of English, and Brian Jensen, Associate Professor, the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences, on the topic of Teaching Undergraduate Research.