Whe IBM’s “Watson” supercomputer made its debut on Jeopardy last year, few realized that it would mark the beginning of a sea change in the American workforce. Shortly after its debut Watson computers became available for diagnosing patients, and last Month IBM announced that Watson computers would begin a foray into the banking sector as well. Similar changes are underway in the law practices, where other powerful computers are increasingly used for data review of case documents.As powerful new computer technologies move into white-collar workforces, one has remained relatively untouched—higher education. Yet a new report from Inside Higher Ed (h/t Marginal Revolution) suggests that this may be about to change. A new study at the University of Akron found that despite the doubts of English professors, a new computer program can grade student essays just as well as their human counterparts:
In the quantitative sense: yes, according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Akron. The study, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, compared the software-generated ratings given to more than 22,000 short essays, written by students in junior high schools and high school sophomores, to the ratings given to the same essays by trained human readers.The differences, across a number of different brands of automated essay scoring software (AES) and essay types, were minute. “The results demonstrated that over all, automated essay scoring was capable of producing scores similar to human scores for extended-response writing items,” the Akron researchers write, “with equal performance for both source-based and traditional writing genre.”
This is bad news for professors and TAs who thus far have managed to resist the forces of automation that have transformed manufacturing and are beginning to transform the professions. But it is good news for the rest of students and parents.It is much too early to forecast how technologies like this will change the face of higher education. But cash strapped public universities, facing declining contributions by state governments and hammered by public discontent over rising tuition, are looking hard for ways to cut costs and improve efficiency. For profit companies are also looking for ways to compete more effectively with the existing model. And students and parents are looking for ways to get job credentials without being saddled with unbearable debt.Change will come, and faster than you think.