Computers to grade tests and essays at college level: EdX

April 5, 2013


Imagine taking a college exam and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program. Then immediately redoing the test to try to improve your grade.

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such software. It can grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks, The New York Times reports.

Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer who is president of EdX, predicted that the instant-grading software would be a useful pedagogical tool, enabling students to take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers. He said the technology would offer distinct advantages over the traditional classroom system, where students often wait days or weeks for grades.

“There is a huge value in learning with instant feedback,” Mr. Agarwal said. “Students are telling us they learn much better with instant feedback.”

But skeptics say the automated system is no match for live teachers. A group of educators is circulating a petition opposing automated assessment software. The group, which calls itself Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment, has collected nearly 2,000 signatures, including some from luminaries like Noam Chomsky.

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essay or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

The software will assign a grade depending on the scoring system created by the teacher, whether it is a letter grade or numerical rank. It will also provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not.

Two startups, Coursera and Udacity, recently founded by Stanford faculty members to create massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are also committed to automated assessment systems because of the value of instant feedback.

How about testing software that automatically grades teacher effectiveness, based on student performance and feedback, forcing teachers to instantly improve? — Editor