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Published February 8, 2015 | Multidisciplinary

Teaching Machines

Teachers who love grading, if they exist, must be a rare breed indeed. Many of us thoroughly enjoy providing thoughtful feedback on learners’ work. Can technology help teachers assess student writing? Join VTE on February 19 at 10–11:30 a.m. for an online lab session on grading tools.

Some teachers, including Taylor Mali’s character in a well-known poem (or search YouTube for Mali’s lively slam poem), might enjoy the effects of grading...

I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face if the student did not do his or her very best.

Activist editors may derive joy from righting the (syntactic) wrongs in this world. Yet even the most tireless copy editor might balk at the thought of pouring through dozens of essays in stilted prose.

Grading may be our duty and a noble one at that. Few of us relish the thought of having to do more of it. Do new policies requiring everyone to dedicate a portion of the grade for the language of instruction involve extra work on our part? The question has certainly sparked its share of debate. Many a professor has searched for remedies that can alleviate the pain of assessing assignments. Can technology help?

Robot Graders?

Upon hearing about such a repetitive chore as “marking papers”, any engineer worth her salt would extol the virtues of automation. Surely, if a task is that repetitive, a machine should be able to do it. It might be a tricky problem to solve, but engineers revel in solving these very types of intricate issues.

As a field, machine learning deals with consistent work done by a human brain, such as that of a teacher grading essays. Though scores of scholars decry the practice, there is such a thing as Automated Essay Scoring (AES).

The New Automatists

 The assessment of student essays is far from the only type of task which can be (or has been) automated. As technology critics point out, several jobs may eventually be done by machines. From cashiers to nurses, it sounds like no form of labour is safe from the robot invasion. Or, as technological utopians hope, technology will save us from menial tasks so that we can focus on something more meaningful.

In educational fields, this type of automation has been stirring up a storm. While some rejoice, others recoil. Even developers of automatic revision software have tried to dampen the fire over claims that machines can replace teachers.

The Meaning of Teaching

As teachers, we do a lot more than marking papers and lecturing. Our work only looks straightforward to outsiders. A lot of our work is misunderstood while remaining essential. We enable action by providing personalized guidance and facilitating deep learning. As Taylor Mali said, in a slightly less polite way, teachers make a significant difference in learners’ lives.

Perhaps we can shift the discussion a bit. Instead of worrying whether the teaching profession is in jeopardy, we can use tools for automation to enhance our work. Teaching is amazingly rewarding, when nothing else gets in the way. Maybe we can emphasise the rewards and decrease the distractions?

VTE, an IT Partner of the Ministère de l’Énseignement supérieur is organizing a lab on technological support for student writing during which these very issues will be tackled. Do you know teachers who love grading? We would like to meet them. Are you surrounded by people who loathe grading? Send them to us as well. Participation in our lab activities is free and open to everyone.

1 comment(s)

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    Alex Enkerli wrote February 10, 2015 at 9:41 AM

    While writing this, had forgotten about Audrey Watters’s upcoming book (and wasn’t really thinking about Skinner). http://teachingmachin.es There are many useful resources about issues of automation in learning contexts. For instance, this video about Elijah Mayfield’s LightSide Revision Assistant (since bought by TurnItIn) insists on the importance of feedback and, well, revision: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMiB4TApZa8 Our lab is specifically about writing, but we’re keeping an eye out for those emerging trends in technology and their pedagogical implications.

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