University essays marked by computer

Let’s follow the logic of this. A student receives an essay title. They’ve attended the lectures and seminars, done the reading, discussing and thinking, so now they type out their thoughts in essay form and press SEND. A few seconds later, it comes back with a grade on it. The clever software has evaluated their work and decided what is right and wrong with it and whether it is excellent or just average. If the student doesn’t like the grade, they have to work out what the computer really wants to hear and resubmit it. This is the latest clever addition to the world of Higher Education from Edx, founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Of course, clever IT students will probably be able to find software to write the essay for them using the same algorhythms. Rich students can easily hire a servant from the numerous essay-writing sites that already infest the system. You might also object, if you felt hopelessly idealistic, that this system would just train students to say what is expected to get high grades rather than offer original insights based on their personal intellectual journey. Like it isn’t what many of them do anyway.  Or you could argue that such an automated system cannot possible allow for subtle nuances of thought and personal style, for elegance, wit, implied ethical position, irony, real originality etc. Come now. It may or may not be possible – technology is far too advanced and too complex for the likes of us to say for sure what it may not achieve – but that is not the point. In defending this system a professor from Ohio, interviewed by the NY Times, pointed out that the factory farming now common in large educational institutions means that real people don’t give meaningful feedback anyway – they just don’t have the time. The choice is between a meaningless tick from a tired person or a rational printout from an impersonal computer. Unless you can afford to go somewhere really expensive, where they have smaller classes, the computer probably gives better value.

Some years ago I turned up at a local university to observe a trainee teacher. She was working her way through a PhD course and paying for it by taking undergraduate classes. The experienced academic would give his main lecture to a maximum capacity crowd then set an essay title. His students would break into groups small enough for a large classroom to ask questions of his untrained and underpaid assistants. The level of debate that resulted was not impressive, but the throughput was. Lots of people ended up with degrees. We can’t all eat off bone china, so hooray for the invention of plastic plates. Or not.

If a computer gives at least the same value as a human, then (a) what are we paying for when we employ academics as teachers and (b) is Higher Education worth having if that is what it has been reduced to? The problem is not computerises marking, but that it would make no real difference, because HE is no longer about thinking but about getting to know stuff and repeating it. It could be argued that if putting so many people through the system reduces it to a level where the output can be accurately graded by a computer, then what the majority receive is not worth their getting into debt for. They can probably get something equally useful much more cheaply on-line, so we can shut down the expensive buildings, sack the expensive academics who are too busy to have a discussion with students and put all our cash into a system that offers something of real value to a lucky minority. The only question then is how we choose them. And apparently we can’t afford proper interviewing systems any more either. But we could if we closed most of the degree factories.


About pauleustice

Retired, more or less, but see
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1 Response to University essays marked by computer

  1. Kes Miller says:

    What is the future of HE, Paul – and what is a degree worth these days? These are things I have been thinking about but can’t find answers too. The only alternative I can remember is the old tripartite system, which I can’t see coming back into operation. But there are different kinds of knowledge that require different kinds of teaching and different kinds of assessment. How can HE develop without being a reflection of socio-economic conditions and hierarchical assumptions about ways of knowing? Its rather comforting to know that I’m not the only person thinking about it…..

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