From The New York Times:

Imagine taking a college exam, and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program.

And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the system would immediately let you rewrite 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 a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.

Umm…. Exactly what other tasks do professors need to be freed to do? Ok, writing, research, whatever, fine, but call me crazy, isn’t grading student work also supposed to be an integral part of their job? Wait, perhaps this just an excuse to close down writing programs and humanities departments (to have more money to give to STEM fields) in order to save the pittance that would otherwise go toward paying the adjuncts who do the real grunt work of teaching writing? Or maybe it’s really just a dastardly ploy by overpaid aging leftists to outsource their work so that they can go lounge on the beach in Tahiti.

Obviously elite colleges will never actually adopt this technology for their undergrads (can you imagine the howls of protest?), although I can see it being used for some of the online, open-enrollment classes.

The real issue is the possibility that non-elite colleges, not to mention high schools in poor states with poor education systems (the article mentions Utah and Louisiana) will use this technology to replace actual human teachers, thus further exacerbating the gap between the educational “haves” and “have nots.”

As pretty much all 934 Times commenters have pointed out, there are just too many things a computer program cannot read for, like veracity, logic, subtlety, and yes, creativity, both in terms of content and structure. And professors don’t exactly seem eager to be relieved of the drudgery of teaching writing either (guess they’re not nearly as lazy as everyone seems to think).

Not to mention this:

“It allows students to get immediate feedback on their work, so that learning turns into a game, with students naturally gravitating toward resubmitting the work until they get it right,” said Daphne Koller, a computer scientist and a founder of Coursera.

First of all, there’s something seriously wrong when 20 year-olds can’t learn unless “it’s like a game.” Learning to write is hard work — it can certainly be enormously interesting and rewarding, but it also takes a long time to master. It’s the polar opposite of a video game, and any system built around the notion that the process can be circumvented by a few cheap tricks has absolutely no understanding of what learning to write involves.

There’s also quite a lot to be said for not getting instant feedback. One of my high school English teachers would return essays covered in reams of meticulous red scrawl; sometimes his notes were almost as long as our papers. Needless to say, he took a lot longer than a few minutes to grade our essays. Those comments could be very harsh, but they showed that he took our work very, very seriously — probably a lot more seriously than most us took it. I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I do now if not for that class.

Besides, the primary thing this technology will teach kids is how to write something that can game the system — regardless of whether it makes sense. The SAT essay, which is still (presumably) scored by human beings, is evidence enough for the kind of gag-inducing jumbled prose that a computerized grader would likely reward.

But who of course cares a whit about whether students actually learn to write as long as the test scores are good? After all, technology is the solution for everything, and test scores are what education is really about. Right?