Robot Overlords Will Make Sure Colleges Don’t Need Teachers. Or Students.

Robot Overlords Will Make Sure Colleges Don't Need Teachers. Or Students.

Working in academia is great, except for those annoying classes you have to teach. Or those classes you have to take. But, technology has a solution. By automating both the essay writing and the grading, we can cut out the middle man and get rid of the students all together! And, why not? If administrators and educators abdicate their responsibility to give students thoughtful feedback and let machines grade papers, why shouldn’t students have the machine write the essay in the first place?


MIT’s Les Perelman has taken this piece of reductio ad absurdum to heart, creating BABEL, a piece of software that will generate an essay based on keywords. Perelman’s program mimics the sentence structures and use of language that the automated grading software uses to evaluate student’s papers, producing such eloquent statements as:

Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent…Humankind will always subjugate privateness.

The essay that included this sentence was graded using the automated system. You will be both depressed and not surprised to learn it got an A-. from the autograde. BABEL went above and beyond the average understanding of the course material! Cookies and good grades for BABEL. Privateness will always be subjugated, don’t even try to argue otherwise. Bestest student EVAH!

Contrarian profs like Perelman disagree, whining about how student essays should be graded on things like “meaning” and “content.” Putz. The commas are all in the right place. What more do you want?

The essay grading program’s creators defended it’s results, saying the software should be used to supplement overworked instructors of entry-level courses because that’s where students are learning fundamental writing skills and need all the feedback they can get.

So bad feedback is better than no feedback, duh. Everyone knows that. It would be sheer madness to fix the problem from the other direction, hiring more instructors and cutting class sizes to make sure students paying thousands of dollars per course actually walked out of the institution with the ability to write a coherent sentence.

This isn’t the first time Perelman has subjected automated grading systems to the unreasonable criticism that they don’t grade human communication. In 2013, Perelman made a mountain out of a molehill when it came out that Abe Lincoln was a crap writer. His Gettysburg Address was a solid F according to the automatic grading machine. Well, yeah. Have you read that thing? Four score and seven years ago? What does that even mean? We are met on a battlefield? Who’s meeting you?

Even after an unknown history professor, who (shockingly) wasn’t named in the article, stood up for the automatic grading system, pointing out that the Gettysburg Address is “more famous for its context than for the actual words themselves,” Perelman just refused to back down from his position that computerized grading systems aren’t capable of understanding natural language. Whatever, Perelman, everyone knows that English sucked back in 1863. That’s why we never bother reading anything written before the turn of the 20th Century.

Shhh – don’t tell the Classics Department, they are totally living in denial over there, thinking they have some kind of relevance.

Perelman isn’t the only educator on this unreasonable crusade, U Mass professors Ann Herrington and Charles Moran also raised some issues with computerized grading,

If a computer can grade thousands of papers at once, why not put all those students in one class? Why not use one teacher to record an online lecture for thousands of students?

Jokes on you, Ann. Have you visited the University of Central Florida recently? Their “blended” campus model results in class sizes of 1000 students. See, the system works!


[Chronicle of Higher Ed]

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