Robot essay graders a growing possibility

essay graders
Photo by Mohan Yin .

Yale faculty may have postponed their vote on the grading overhaul to November, but students concerned about grading policies may have something bigger to worry about: artificial intelligence software that could be used to evaluate their essays.

EdX — an education nonprofit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — has just introduced a free online tool that automates the essay grading process. EdX president Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, told The New York Times he believes his software will give professors more free time and allow students to receive helpful instant feedback. The software first analyzes 100 of a professor’s already graded essays, then uses machine-learning techniques to grade future papers on its own.

Though this technology is not currently in use, the idea does not sit well with Yale students and faculty.

“To me, that sounds a little absurd, and I really hope Yale would never even consider doing something like that,” said Scott Stern ’15, who is a columnist for the News and organized the “We Are the 79%” protest against proposed changes to Yale’s grading system. “For online classes, I do see the allure of something like that; I just don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

The technology comes at a time when “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, are quickly gaining popularity. Many universities, including Yale, have recently begun offering courses for free through iTunes U and YouTube. Most Web-based classes do not currently provide a way for students to submit essays or receive comments on them. Agarwal said he thinks this new technology will make these courses more interactive.

Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said he is skeptical. Kagan, whose course “Death” has gained popularity online through Yale Open Courses and iTunes U, said there is no set of right answers any machine could look for in a philosophy paper. Unlike a professor, a robot grader would neither notice nor appreciate “brilliant” turns of phrases and creative arguments in a paper, he added.

“The thing about philosophy is that you can draw on examples from everything. The program would have to have untold knowledge about how everything works,” Kagan said. “I would be utterly floored to discover that this program would be any good at all for making out what’s a good philosophy paper.”

Yale computer science professor and author David Gelernter had even harsher words about EdX’s artificial intelligence software.

“In theoretical terms, it’s an interesting A.I. project. In practical terms, only a fool would attempt to distribute such software and only a fool squared would actually use it,” Gelernter said. “Anyone who takes EdX up on their offer marks himself as an educational fraud.”

Gelernter said he believes online courses will replace 95 percent of today’s colleges within the next two decades and is sympathetic to the problems the change will pose. But he said he would rather have students’ writing graded by other humans — even if doing so means sacrificing the instant feedback robots could provide.

“The value of the Net is precisely in connecting people. Plenty of people can teach writing,” Gelernter said.

Gelernter, who teaches the writing course “The Graphical User Interface,” said he tries to help students develop their own unique voice. Current artificial intelligence technology does not have the capacity to determine whether a student’s voice is authentic, he added.

English 120 professor Rolf Potts, a professional travel writer, said he remains unconvinced that essays submitted for his class could be subjected to an algorithm evaluating their merit.

“Language itself and forms of communication are fluid in ways that go against algorithms,” he said. “The expository essays that you learn in high school are a mid- to late-20th century thing. But essays are still changing.”

Launched in April 2012, EdX partners with 12 universities nationwide to provide online courses to the general public.

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