Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Increasingly large classes"

It is never really worth the time to point out something egregious the New York Times is doing, but it's rainy out and I'm a bit ranty this morning, so.

The recentish NYT article on machine-grading essays ends thus:

Mark D. Shermis, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, supervised the Hewlett Foundation’s contest on automated essay scoring and wrote a paper about the experiment. In his view, the technology — though imperfect — has a place in educational settings.

With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said. Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.

“Often they come from very prestigious institutions where, in fact, they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could,” Dr. Shermis said. “There seems to be a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world.”

Three things going on there.

1. "With increasingly large classes." Oh, what is causing those classes to grow? Nature? The seasons? The moon and tides? Or the failure to hire enough professors to meet the size of the student body in the first place? Shermis suggests that "increasingly large classes" are a fact of nature, not a personnel decision. The author of the article, John Markoff, does not correct.

2. Shermis notes that critics often come from "very prestigious" institutions, by which he actually seems to mean "good" ones, because "they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could." I highly doubt the software gives more useful feedback than do humans at "less prestigious" institutions. (Don't get me started on the offensiveness of his insinuation about faculty at "less prestigious" institutions.) There is a disgusting and invidious ranking implicit in Shermis's remarks that imply that "the nation's best universities" are "best" purely through Merit and Talent, and that we have no responsibility to try to get all the nation's college students a commensurately high-quality education. That used to be what the University of California was for, but I guess that's gone.

3. In a neat twist, Shermis decides that qualitatively rich teaching and helpful feedback on essays are not real. The actually existing, documentedly and admittedly better solution of hiring enough faculty to teach your students is placed outside "the real world," in a zone of unreality that makes it unemulable, and certainly not a model for broader educational policy. Whereas having software grade your students' essays is totally realistic and a great idea.


Crystal Anderson said...

This NYT article was rant-worthy! I like your critique about the assumptions about what we faculty at "less prestigious" institutions may or may not be doing, as if what we do is a function of WHERE we are and not HOW were were trained or what kind of experience we bring to teaching.

AAL said...

The most recent paper I graded had fairly decent grammar and structure, but its argument suffered complete logical failure. No computer program would be able to recognize the flaw.

Switching to computer grading for these "increasingly large classes" would only encourage mechanically-structured but logically-erroneous papers like that one.

The idea that computers could replace grading in these magically-growing classrooms is dependent on a complete misunderstanding of what we as faculty teach, and what our students need to be learning.

Anonymous said...

Pleased to learn that the real world is on offer in Akron. Never would have thought to look there. Thanks for the analysis. Well done!