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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.

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Technology automates. It does other things, too, but its main value, and the thing we fear about it, is its ability to automate.

Every time we automate something new, it sparks ecstasy and terror. That's true even for something as mundane as automated essay grading, which has been around for a while, but was added to the EdX platform earlier this year and then heralded in a New York Times article.

The National Council of Teachers of English responded with a statement, "Machine Scoring Fails the Test," listing nine reasons computers can't teach writing. The English teachers' manifesto was vivid, emotive and foolish. They miss the point entirely. Automated essay grading needs to happen, and English teachers should be screaming for it, especially in K-12.

Others hammered EdX for perpetrating hype. The "breathless story weaves a tale of robo-professors taking over the grading process, leaving professors free to kick back their feet and take a nap, and subsequently inviting universities, ever-focused on the bottom-line, to fire all the professors," wrote Elijah Mayfield on the e-Literate blog.

As if.

First, the New York Times story doesn't mention napping. Second, when the new school year starts, nobody who teaches writing will be taking any naps thanks to automated essay graders. Instead, teachers will be losing sleep trying to give feedback to scores of students who desperately need more of it. Or, more likely, the students just won't get the feedback they need to improve as writers.

[ So, what about math? Read For Algebra, Spreadsheets Beat Newer Teaching Tools. ]

The EdX tool itself is in alpha; it's been used in two EdX courses, neither of which were writing courses (one is a chemistry class, the other a course on public health). It does use artificial intelligence to give feedback on (and, yes, grade) writing assignments, but it does not have to -- the tool has three possible ways to give feedback: the artificial intelligence-driven tool, peer-grading and assessment, and self-assessment. Teachers can use any or all of them, in any order they like.

The interface is not simple enough, confesses Vik Paruchuri, the EdX machine-learning engineer leading its automated essay-grading tool.

Talking with Paruchuri makes it clear that he's not some evil engineer trying to seize the day from the local high school's beloved Mr. Keating. I have not seen the EdX tool in action, but it is clear that it is not ready for grading papers, and -- at least for now -- is not intended to be that sort of tool.

What it does is help kids learn basics. Paruchuri says comments on the tool from EdX students who've used it are clear: They like that it gives them feedback. Most students do not get enough feedback on their writing, even when they're at good schools. I've taught high school students coming from private schools and been stunned by the obvious lack of feedback they've received on the basics.

An automated essay grading tool like EdX's can give feedback quickly and repeatedly, with consistent comments on what the student could do to improve, and what's working well. It's like giving students one-on-one access to a grammar instructor who will always remain patient, even to the nth time the kid splits an infinitive.

They cannot get such feedback now.

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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
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.
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
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
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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