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 covering sustainability news spots and features.
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To say something like "The choice is between doing something like this and not doing any writing and only doing multiple choice" betrays a pretty profound blindness to the trends. 'Writing-intensive' courses are increasing, rhetoric is getting at least as much funding as it ever has (and in some schools is getting more). So if that's really intended to be a significant premise, then the whole argument fails, because it's just not true.

I remember turning off Microsoft's Grammar Checker years ago because it didn't like anything I wrote. I honestly do not know how a computer program could take the place of a real professor and his/her comments. All I can say is, I'm glad I'm not going to Dartmouth!

I think this software is a great ideal depending on how it’s used. If students could pre-grade their essay before submitting them then they will be able to become better writers. I also hated early versions of MicroSoft’s grammar checker. But now when I compose text and it indicates that I make an error I am able to try to figure out why and correct the grammar. The program is still not perfect but I tend to write clearer. Today too many of us write either the way we talk or in terms of Twitter or FaceBook which does not fare well in the business and technical worlds.

Agree that it is a good tool. I do hope the Marketplace will follow up the story when it is launched.

Agree with darrylc -- I'm more interested in what it does and how it works. I went to the linked edX site and it just lands on their home page with no indication of where the gadget might be. I'd like to see what it thinks of my own writing. It sounds like it could be a useful revision tool.

This story was very light on content. With a line like the lead in, I would expect to know a little more about how this robo-grader works, rather than if someone thinks it's a good idea or not. I will be better able to tell if it is a sound idea if I actually know how it works.

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