Beware the rise of the robo-grader

EdX is launching a new free online service that grades papers and provides instant feedback on student essays.

A robo-grader may be coming to a school near you. 

EdX, the nonprofit collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is about to launch a new free Internet service that uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays without any input from teachers. 

But Dr. Joshua Kim, an administrator in learning and technology at Dartmouth College, says the new technology isn't meant to replace teacher feedback -- it's meant to get more students writing. 

"The choice is between doing something like this and not doing any writing and only doing multiple choice," Kim said. "So if a technology like this can introduce writing into large classes where the writing was not going on because the classes were too big, I think that's a great technology." 

He added, "Maybe this technology is sort of a gateway drug for getting people writing and they'll end up in the small seminars that we all believe are what education should be about." 

One criticism of some examination methods is that teachers "teach to the test" so students get high scores. With the EdX essay grader, will students learn to write to the robot?

Professor Kim says that's not likely. "I think that any technology can be misused and I think we're starting to see this with these massively open online courses where people are thinking, well this is a substitute for what goes on in higher education." But Kim says, "It's only a tool, its a way to engage our students, to get them to think and participate and to build. Sure, it could be misused but I'm not so worried about that."

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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