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?

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