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<nettime> Essay-Grading Software
nettime's avid reader on Thu, 25 Apr 2013 12:36:20 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Essay-Grading Software

[It's the classic approach. First, de-skill a certain task, i.e. make
people behave like machines, then replace them by actual machines.
This becomes particularly clear at the end of the article.]

April 4, 2013
Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break


Imagine taking a college exam, and, instead of handing in a blue book
and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the
“send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly,
your essay scored by a software program.

And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the
system would immediately let you rewrite the test to try to improve
your grade.

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just
introduced such a system and will make its automated software
available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it.
The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and
short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.

The new service will bring the educational consortium into a growing
conflict over the role of automation in education. Although automated
grading systems for multiple-choice and true-false tests are now
widespread, the use of artificial intelligence technology to grade
essay answers has not yet received widespread endorsement by educators
and has many critics.

Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer who is president of EdX,
predicted that the instant-grading software would be a useful
pedagogical tool, enabling students to take tests and write essays
over and over and improve the quality of their answers. He said the
technology would offer distinct advantages over the traditional
classroom system, where students often wait days or weeks for grades.

“There is a huge value in learning with instant feedback,” Dr. Agarwal
said. “Students are telling us they learn much better with instant

But skeptics say the automated system is no match for live teachers.
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.

He is among a group of educators who last month began circulating a
petition opposing automated assessment software. The group, which
calls itself Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays
in High-Stakes Assessment, has collected nearly 2,000 signatures,
including some from luminaries like Noam Chomsky.

“Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring,” the group’s
statement reads in part. “Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot
measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy,
reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance,
convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity,
among others.”

But EdX expects its software to be adopted widely by schools and
universities. EdX offers free online classes from Harvard, M.I.T. and
the University of California, Berkeley; this fall, it will add classes
from Wellesley, Georgetown and the University of Texas. In all, 12
universities participate in EdX, which offers certificates for course
completion and has said that it plans to continue to expand next year,
including adding international schools.

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.

Dr. Agarwal said he believed that the software was nearing the
capability of human grading.

“This is machine learning and there is a long way to go, but it’s good
enough and the upside is huge,” he said. “We found that the quality of
the grading is similar to the variation you find from instructor to

EdX is not the first to use automated assessment technology, which
dates to early mainframe computers in the 1960s. There is now a range
of companies offering commercial programs to grade written test
answers, and four states — Louisiana, North Dakota, Utah and West
Virginia — are using some form of the technology in secondary schools.
A fifth, Indiana, has experimented with it. In some cases the software
is used as a “second reader,” to check the reliability of the human

But the growing influence of the EdX consortium to set standards is
likely to give the technology a boost. On Tuesday, Stanford announced
that it would work with EdX to develop a joint educational system that
will incorporate the automated assessment technology.

Two start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, recently founded by Stanford
faculty members to create “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, are
also committed to automated assessment systems because of the value of
instant feedback.

“It allows students to get immediate feedback on their work, so that
learning turns into a game, with students naturally gravitating toward
resubmitting the work until they get it right,” said Daphne Koller, a
computer scientist and a founder of Coursera.

Last year the Hewlett Foundation, a grant-making organization set up
by one of the Hewlett-Packard founders and his wife, sponsored two
$100,000 prizes aimed at improving software that grades essays and
short answers. More than 150 teams entered each category. A winner of
one of the Hewlett contests, Vik Paruchuri, was hired by EdX to help
design its assessment software.

“One of our focuses is to help kids learn how to think critically,”
said Victor Vuchic, a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation.
“It’s probably impossible to do that with multiple-choice tests. The
challenge is that this requires human graders, and so they cost a lot
more and they take a lot more time.”

Mark D. Shermis, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio,
supervised the Hewlett Foundation’s contest on automated essay scoring
and wrote a paper about the experiment. In his view, the technology —
though imperfect — has a place in educational settings.

With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers
to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said.
Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the
nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better
than at most schools.

“Often they come from very prestigious institutions where, in fact,
they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever
could,” Dr. Shermis said. “There seems to be a lack of appreciation of
what is actually going on in the real world.”

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