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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.