Sorry, Dave, but you get an F.

April 5, 2013

There was a report in the paper today about a joint project by MIT and Harvard that has produced new freeware to grade written answers to exams.  This will, they say, free up professors for other tasks.  Hmm…

Years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the topic of whether or not Ethics and Professionalism could be usefully measured as part of the engineering licensing exam process.  I suggested that an essay be required, not an obvious answer for those in the engineering profession.  I won the contest – I think there was one other entry in the entire USA – and I got a paid trip to Denver to present my essay to an ASCE conference:  pretty fun for a student with no money at the time.  Now that engineering-numeracy model is come back to bite me, or us!

Why yes!  Why shouldn’t a machine be able to grade short essays and written answers?  Everyone with a school-age child knows about ‘rubrics,’ those itemized lists of things to be accomplished and presented in the student’s submission to receive a decent grade on the project.  Perfect for programming. 

I wonder if the machine will grade philosophy exams?  Or creative writing too?  Easily done if we reduce education to teaching for a test, not to mention a test that a machine can grade, but then, we’re halfway there already what with the reign of the SAT and standardized testing in grade school. 

Here we confront the central tension in education:  for most people, in and out of the power elite, it’s simply a production process to enhance economic output, employability, etc. etc.  Okay, nothing wrong with that.  It also helps to solidify the status quo while you’re at it.  But then, there’s always that other  element of education that favors questions, critical thought, play, humor, imagination and wit, and all sorts of  un-measurable things.  And no use pining for the good old days when higher education was restricted to an elite few:  reading accounts of it in memoirs makes clear that there is no need for machines to produce a completely stultifying, mechanical education system!

Advertisements