Robbie the Robo-Grader says, “It’s okay, I don’t bite.”

This is the last required blog post for ENGL 973 and looking back on my posts for the semester, a theme keeps resurfacing: my struggle in understanding the bigger picture of Imagetechnology and its role in the classroom. Despite welcoming technology into my teaching, I continue to view it with a critical eye. I rather prefer this perspective, which baffles some because if I incorporate some technology into my classroom, this means I think all technology is great and wonderful and full of rainbows and unicorns. I especially like this perspective when I read articles that challenge my viewpoints. This week is no different. I think I even remember saying something earlier in this class about “robots grading student papers” and clearly I was opposed-to-the-core to this idea. I am still uneasy about machine-grading/scoring of student writing, but at least now I have more information to consider.

On the menu this week:

Wyatt, “What Computers Can and Could Do…”

Reid, “Machines are Readers, too”

Mayfield, “Six Ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Grading Wrong”

Winterhalter, “Computer Grading will Destroy Our Schools”

Whithaus, “Always Already”

Hack Education

Anson, “Climate Change” (need access to CCCC subscription for this one)

It seems with these pieces, and with other central themes and issues addressed in this course, that what matters in the use of technology is what we do with “it”. In this case, the “it” is the result of machine grading. I have been critical of this notion in the past because the only context I have encountered it being used and discussed is with state testing, a high stakes context. While it would be a nice thing if machines could learn to read writing and appropriately score it, I am still nervous about our states relying on the results when there are such high stakes involved—federal dollars and governmental involvement in schools and districts.

Wyatt, in “What Computers Can and Could Do…” states, “robo-grading scares teachers. You can find a lot of articles and essays on this technology. Someday, the technology will work — at least well enough for a first-pass. The reality is, bad writing probably can be detected by software. A human should always verify the results of computer-based grading tools, yet the tools can save time.” I like this statement. It acknowledges the affordances of the tool, but does not eliminate the human component, which is what I imagine, scares many teachers, myself included. It is this very human action of “reading” that Reid addresses in “Machines are Readers, too” when he states, “machines are perfectly good readers. That’s not where the problem is. The problem is that we don’t understand reading.” The author also addresses the idea of purpose (something I return to repeatedly: What is the purpose of this technology of that technology?). He states, “We need to ask what it is that we are trying to determine when we are grading these exams. Do we want to know if students can produce texts that have certain definable features in a testing situation? Do we want to know if students will get good grades on writing assignments in college? Or do we want to know, more nebulously, if students are ‘good writers’? I think we have proceeded as if these are the same questions. That is, good writers get good grades in college because they can produce texts with certain definable features. But that’s not how it works at all, and I think we know that.”

Ideally, I see machine grading/scoring as a tool to use in the formative process of writing, which is what Mayfield offers in “Six Ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong” when he states, “We shouldn’t be thinking about this technology as replacing teachers. Instead, we should be thinking of all the places where students can use this information before it gets to the point of a final grade.” From what I have read and know about the importance of specific and meaningful formative feedback on writing, this area interests me and may be a rich area for educational research. I am always seeking ways to support students in the formative process of writing, instead of at the end.

To end, I am no longer worried that essay-grading robots are going to take over my career, just as long as we ethically and critically view and use the results.


3 thoughts on “Robbie the Robo-Grader says, “It’s okay, I don’t bite.”

  1. I loved hearing your thoughts about how you’ve approached the readings this semester and the ways your thinking has changed. You mentioned appreciating texts that challenge you, and I think that’s another important reading strategy to add to our class list: reading to stretch and grow, to grapple with different ideas and perspectives and emerge with something new. I respect that instead of “changing your mind” about Robbie the robot-grader, you’ve added more layers of complexity to your understanding of a complicated concept. I think that’s one possible definition of a “successful” reading.

  2. Writing and purpose and technology and purpose are two things I also thought about a lot while doing the reading this week and while doing the blog post. I like tools that are meant to improve my teaching, but it is always important to ask “what is my purpose” and “what is my objective.” If the tool doesn’t fit that objective, then, as you noted, it is worth being more leery and critical of.

  3. Thank you so much for your post this week. You and I cover a lot of the same ground in our responses to this week’s reading. Like you, I am really believe that “what matters in the use of technology is what we do with ‘it.'” We need to move beyond the utopic and dystopic conceptions of technologies to a more complex and nuanced reflection of the uses and limits of various technologies (and pre-digiital technologies should certainly be considered in this reflection). I think that your comments about using the technological capabilities of machine reading/scoring as formative makes the most sense. I am all about inviting my students to analyze their own work, and this technologies allows students to (re-)encounter their work through another lens.

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