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8/5/2013
09:59 AM
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Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate

Some educators say the benefits of EdX's writing-grading software have been over-hyped. But I see a role for automation in the classroom.

I appreciate that English teachers fret about societal pressure on schools to quit creating well-informed citizens and instead create tech- and math-savvy workers. It's a clear blow to the value of the humanities. I understand that Elijah Mayfield secretly wishes the New York Times had written an article about his automated writing assessment startup, Lightside Lab.

But automating essay grading helps English teachers. And in his post, Mayfield comments that "this technology isn't replacing teachers; it's enabling them to get students help, practice and experience with writing that the education field has never seen before, and without machine learning technology, will never see."

Funny, that's sounds just like EdX's goal, too.

Whether it's EdX, Lightside or somebody else, we need to applaud them and push them forward. I occasionally teach journalism and would love to throw a tool at students that could help them with grammar and basic textual analysis of their style. The tools aren't ready, or at least, the EdX tool is not.

We need them. Our time as teachers is best spent on other things.

Michael B. Horn, executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute's education program, told me via email that "automatic scoring can do several things very well and the technology is improving. Where the alternative is nothing, it is ideal, because it will be infinitely better and not compete directly against human graders."

We fear being automated out of the workforce, but we also fantasize about how technology will spare us from the drudgery and toil of subsistence living, be it wishing elves would hand-stitch shoes for us, magic beans would help us escape from a life breaking our backs digging furrows with hoes or, yes, that we could automate Strunk and White.

When we've got that last bit down, it will be high time to kick our feet up and take a well-deserved nap.

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Michael Fitzgerald
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Michael Fitzgerald,
User Rank: Moderator
8/6/2013 | 6:34:14 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
Thanks, Frank. how widely used are/were these tools? I would love to see them adopted broadly.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/5/2013 | 11:51:27 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
Thanks for sharing the history, Frank
FrankCatalano
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FrankCatalano,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/5/2013 | 11:08:52 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
"They cannot get such feedback now." Not entirely true, as the earlier aside "which has been around for a while" implies. While this may be new to a MOOC or higher ed audience, automated essay graders have been both around and actively in use in K-12 for years. The usual use is not high-stakes scoring, but providing opportunities for students to practice writing and summarizing skills with teacher-directed settings for what kind of feedback to provide, and at what threshold.

For example, I worked on Pearson Knowledge Technologies' launch of WriteToLearn in 2006, based on an underlying engine from what had been called Knowledge Analysis Technologies before it was acquired by Pearson. Active competitors at the time were ETS and Vantage Learning, among others, with their own engines. Many, if not all, of these products are still on the market and in use. (I haven't had a direct affiliation with any of these products for years, in the interest of full disclosure.)

This isn't to say the underlying tech can't be improved, as it has been regularly since then, and perhaps by its efforts EdX can spur continued improvement.
Cara Latham
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Cara Latham,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/5/2013 | 8:47:14 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
I think there is definitely a benefit to helping students learn the basics of grammar. A teacher can then focus on more important ideas -- themes, writing style, whether or not the paper flows, and other creative commentary. I don't, however, think one can grade creativity without a human element involved.
JulieP840
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JulieP840,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/5/2013 | 8:38:21 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
Education is like other sectors in that technology can -- and should -- be used to leverage what people do best. When technology like this is done well, it can be a boon to teachers and students, not a job-killer (or nap-inducer). Technology like this also has the potential to help teachers target the students who need help, the areas of content/skill that most need addressing across the group/class, etc.
Michael Fitzgerald
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Michael Fitzgerald,
User Rank: Moderator
8/5/2013 | 6:51:26 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
i'd also like to hear from teachers about how hard it will be to add such tools to class, when the tools are ready.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/5/2013 | 4:34:19 PM
re: Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate
If you have tested or used software like this, we would love to get your comments here. - David F. Carr, InformationWeek Education
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