Students, meet your robot professor. EdX, an educational consortium founded by Harvard and MIT we’ve written about before, has just released new software that grades student papers automatically. The NYT reports:
The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.
The software will assign a grade depending on the scoring system created by the teacher, whether it is a letter grade or numerical rank. It will also provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not.
EdX is making this system available for free online to all schools that want it, and four states are already using a similar program in public high schools. Some like the new technology because it can provide students with instant feedback when human grading can take weeks. Others don’t:
One longtime critic, Les Perelman, has drawn national attention several times for putting together nonsense essays that have fooled software grading programs into giving high marks. He has also been highly critical of studies that purport to show that the software compares well to human graders.
“My first and greatest objection to the research is that they did not have any valid statistical test comparing the software directly to human graders,” said Mr. Perelman, a retired director of writing and a current researcher at M.I.T.
Via Meadia is withholding judgment on this specific implementation, as we haven’t had a chance to play with it. We’ll be enrolling a staffer in an EdX course to have them try to game the system so we can see what all the fuss is about.
And we understand Mr. Perelman’s skepticism. Machine learning has been an area of study for computer scientists for a long time now, and with computers getting ever faster, there have been huge strides made in areas such as data mining and pattern recognition. But these breakthroughs are a far cry from actual artificial intelligence, and as Mr. Perelman’s advocacy group correctly points out, “computers cannot ‘read’”.
Nevertheless, tools like this have a definite place. The technology will probably never be a full substitute for a human teacher, but as a force multiplier, it could be quite useful. Today’s state-of-the-art algorithms could be good enough for grading short answers in online courses. And in a more traditional university setting, the technology could be used to free up professors for one-on-one mentoring by doing a first pass at grading a large stack of papers.
Either way, this is just another example of the technological disruption that is transforming many industries today, from law to medicine to manufacturing. Whether or not the EdX software itself catches on, innovations like this are going to become an important part of education’s future. There’s no use fighting the inevitable.
[Robot photo from Shutterstock]