The massive computerized professor

The future of testing and higher education will be one of laziness.

Trent M. Kays

The march of technology seems to be one devoid of critical inquiry, valuable interaction and meaningful instructor feedback, but we shouldn’t despair because we have a savior.

EdX, an online course enterprise created by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is going to save professors from providing feedback in classrooms and on tests. In doing so, students can get instant feedback on their work without having to wait on someone else. It’s going to be a wonderful learning environment knowing that professors no longer have to waste their time on students.

Automated feedback is nothing new. However, EdX is taking it to an entirely new level. Writing is not an automated activity. Sure, a computer can compile and construct sentences, but a computer can never write. It can never move people to action via discourse, and it can never really construct meaning. The human in the writing process is paramount. Humans drive the writing process. Therefore, in the same way computers cannot write, they also cannot be left to judge others’ writing.

Even now, students are marching into SAT and GRE testing facilities to take standardized tests and write to prompts. After they finish writing, their essay is sent off to be graded by a computer. To be fair, according to the Educational Testing Service, one human also grades test answers. Still, how does it make you feel knowing that a computer is deciding whether you’ll go to college? That’s basically what is happening.

For some ludicrous and dumbfounded reason, our educational system still values standardized tests and canned writing prompts. That’s how life actually works, right? My frustration with automated grading is barely contained. Indeed, many nights I stay awake working, trying to understand how so many smart people can be so misguided.

I grow weary of a society that pigeonholes students because of what a computer says. It doesn’t make any sense, yet we continue to allow it. Soon, it won’t matter at all.

The pervasiveness of hollow and massive online education naturally leads to hollow and massive feedback. This feedback — carried out by the heartless computer — may offer instant feedback, but it will not offer understanding, nuance and empathy, many of which many student writers need. It’s ridiculous to expect one instructor in a course of 10,000 students to offer meaningful and consistent feedback on every student’s work. It’s impossible.

Yet, instead of understanding this as a reason to not make education massive, we create algorithms to offer feedback, so we don’t have to worry about it. I guess we shouldn’t expect professors to do this important and essential part of their jobs. This technology seems to be made to offer professors and instructors a break from the very work they signed up to do.

There have been rounds of articles and discussions regarding how we can make writing massive and, thus, offer feedback massively. Most of these
discussions are shortsighted, ill-informed and lazy. It’s easy to make writing massive, and it’s easy to let a computer grade an essay. It’s easy to do these things because they require lazy thinking.

We’ve placed our educational trust in organizations that are actively attempting to rid us of educators. You can’t have education without educators, yet the more we support massive courses as credit-worthy, we limit the future of exactly what it means to be educated. Certainly, education is privileged and not everyone can achieve it, but we shouldn’t dilute ourselves into thinking that massive courses are anything but massive recreations of despicably privileged institutions.

Students deserve better than a computer-graded essay. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks this. A group called, “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” began a petition (I am a signatory) to stop automated scoring of writing. Perhaps if there are enough people who sign, those who support automated grading will rethink their position.

Technology has a place in education. Technology has and can let us do wonderful things. It has allowed us to reach students across the globe, bring the world to classrooms and  changed how we understand ourselves. But contemporary technology and calls for massiveness can only supplement education; they cannot replace it.

Despite this, I imagine a future where human professors are close to extinction, the lone wolfs of education. They will be the last vestiges of something that was and could’ve again been great. Computer terminals, automated grading and laziness will replace them. There’s nothing inherently critical about massive courses and automated grading. In massive courses, professors can easily ignore students. With automated grading, professors are removed from a critical juncture in the learning process.

I’m not sure if this is our future, but it certainly looks like it. For decades, writing teachers have fought to create intimate writing classrooms where students are encouraged to flourish. Students are encouraged to write and learn with their teachers and peers. Now, instead of progress, we are replicating non-interactive lecture hall learning environments online. Then, we’re topping it off with automated grading, so teachers don’t even really have to ever interact with students. That’s some education.

Education should be an intimate experience, and we shouldn’t let massiveness and automation destroy it.