Dan Grover: A tech innovation that degrades learning

In a joint effort, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rolled out a piece of software this month that would provide instant feedback on essays and gives students the opportunity to correct their answers for more credit.

Some in the higher education and tech worlds have touted it as an educational boon, saving professors and students time and grunt work. EdX expects plenty of universities to catch on to aspects of the program and follow in the footsteps of some of its partners like Georgetown University and University of Texas, which have already launched free online courses through the venture.

And while GW administrators say they have no immediate plans to adopt the software, they admit the technology is intriguing. But they should continue to tread lightly on rocky technological terrain.

The edX software would degrade the classroom experience, replacing valid, personal faculty feedback with tips from computers.

The note of caution is key, especially as the University rightfully looks toward innovation. The University recently appointed its first vice provost for online education and academic innovation, handing the job to former law dean Paul Schiff Berman. It’s also expanded its base of online graduate programs and made them more interactive.

With such a push toward online education recently, it seems logical – albeit frightening – that edX’s essay-grading software is a realm that could be explored.

“My immediate personal thought is that it potentially is a great learning tool,” Associate Provost and Director of the Teaching and Learning Collaborative Denis Cioffi said in an email. “If a student could see how to improve an essay immediately, redrafts might be much more attractive, and rapid improvement might occur.”

Using technology to enhance the classroom experience is, of course, vital. Students learn better with visual components, like PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos, to augment lectures. And there’s something to be said about making college-level classes affordable for the masses through online education.

But when considering ways to offer some academic options online, computer-graded essays should remain off-limits. After all, it’s hard to imagine how a machine could grade something as subjective as a paper.

Essays by their very nature are subjective, argument-based and difficult to quantify. And unlike a standardized test or a math problem, there isn’t necessarily a right answer. What’s troubling about edX’s invention is that it assumes you can plug in a formula for the perfect essay, but that simply isn’t the case.

Computers can tell you if you have a run-on sentence or a misspelling, but they can’t help improve the ideas of an argument or thesis. That’s where teachers come in. A professor’s purpose is to provide meaningful feedback to students and help them develop their argument.

When I’m writing a paper, I often bring it to the professor and we edit my work together. It triggers a dialogue about my progress and gives me ways to improve the draft.

I fear that edX’s invention would render this important step in the learning process virtually obsolete. Professors would lose relevance, as there would be no need for them to give students feedback.

GW, like many other institutions, has a comprehensive writing program that, in theory, relies heavily on one-on-one conversations. The writing courses are intentionally small, which gives students the ability to work closely with their professors.

No computer can replace that.

Technology is an important part of higher education, and it should be. But we should be wary of what it might replace.

Dan Grover, a freshman majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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