a brave new world.

This weekend the NY Times ran a story on 32 innovations that will change your tomorrow. Some are cool, others are a little scary, and more than a few are completely unnecessary (e.g., a Jetson-esque machine exclusively for washing and drying your hair). This weekend I also got an email from a textbook publisher telling me about their own innovation, or at least efforts to advance one: computer-graded writing assignments. Here are relevant excerpts from the email:

In recent years, [textbook publishers] have recognized that many instructors want to assign writing to their students, but simply don’t have the time or resources to do so.

[textbook publisher] is developing a computer-assisted grading program that will accurately auto-grade brief writing assignments – 200 to 950 words.  The program uses specific writing prompts and rubrics and to achieve computer grading accuracy.  For the program to work correctly, thousands of student essays are scored by hand and loaded into the system.  By doing this, the system “learns” how to grade essay questions.  This system has been successfully introduced into a number of course areas, and [textbook publisher] is now bringing this technology to the Social Psychology market.

Call me old-fashioned – after all, maybe some people are interested in purchasing an appliance to wash and dry their hair – but I find this idea appalling. I’m not completely against technology like this. I love that Pandora and Netflix use algorithms to determine my preferences, to make recommendations that I can then determine whether or not I want to listen to or watch. But Facebook thinks that I am the target audience for ads about mothers going back to school.* Even Gmail can’t always discern what’s “important” – and what’s Spam.

Am I over-reacting? Would students today be more comfortable with computers (and, specifically, “social psychologists” who graded the original assignments used to generate the algorithm) grading their assignments than the teaching-assistants or nutty professors? What is academia coming to? Are we too busy with the publish or perish mindset – or teaching 10 classes to scrape by as an adjunct – to grade written assignments? What will this do for cheating, for creativity? Is this an innovation that will change your tomorrow, or is it one you’ll never use even if it makes it to your sub-discipline?


* Of course, maybe Facebook realizes how bad the job market is for newly-minted PhDs and that’s why it regularly suggests that I get an associates degree to enter a lucrative, fulfilling career.

2 thoughts on “a brave new world.”

  1. Are they saying they can machine-grade a question that you dream up, or only one of the questions that they have normed with human graders?

    The students who are going to get graded this way are the working-class students at under-funded public schools or sweatshop-conditions private schools with low-paid adjuncts who are forced into it by speedup conditions at their institutions.


  2. The textbook publisher will rely on particular prompts that they provide. They originally contacted me to ask me to use those prompts and provide them with my students’ papers so that they could be graded (by their social psychologists) and serve as part of the database.


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