Babel vs. essay-grading bots

These days, more tests ask students to write short essays, not just answer multiple-choice questions. But it’s slow and expensive to hire humans do the grading. Essay-grading ‘bots are cheap and fast, but are they any good?

It’s easy to fool a robot grader, Les Perelman, a former writing director at MIT, tells the Chronicle of Higher Education.

His Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator, or Babel, can crank out robot-fooling essays using one to three keywords. Each sentence is grammatically correct, structurally sound and meaningless. Robots can’t tell the difference, says Perelman.

He fed in “privacy.” Babel wrote:

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

MY Access!, an online writing-instruction product, graded the essay immediately: 5.4 points out of 6, with “advanced” ratings for “focus and meaning” and “language use and style.”

Robots and human graders awarded similar scores to 22,000 essays by high school and middle school students, concluded at study by Mark D. Shermis, a former dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, in 2012.

Perelman accused Shermis of bad data analysis. The Akron professor stood by his study and published a follow-up paper this year.

Computer scientists at edX, the nonprofit online-course provider co-founded by MIT, are working on the Enhanced AI Scoring Engine, or EASE. The software can learn and imitate the grading styles of particular professors,” reports the Chronicle.

Some of edX’s university partners have used EASE to provide feedback to students in massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Regulators threaten coding academies

“Coding academies,” which offer intensive, short-term training in programming skills, don’t rely on state or federal financial aid. Job placement rates are sky-high. But California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is threatening to shut down coding schools unless they apply for licenses.

BPPE regulations require schools to get curriculum changes by the agency, which may take up to six months. “We change our curriculum every three weeks, and we can’t teach technology that’s six months old,” Shereef Bishay, founder of Dev BootCamp, said.

Will online learning deMOOCratize higher education? Poorly prepared students need face-to-face support to succeed.

More MOOCs

Dhawal Shah signed up for one of the first MOOCs from Stanford in November, 2011 and started  Class Central to track new courses on offer. MOOCs are growing rapidly, he writes on EdSurge. There are about 100 MOOCs in 2012 and almost 700 starting in 2013. More than 1200 courses have been announced so far for 2014. He estimates there will be 10 million MOOC registrants.


Completion rates are low, Shah concedes. “It’s still not clear whether they have a sustainable business model.” But students keep signing up.

Coursera offers nearly half of all MOOCs, but competition is growing.

Class Central lists a number of education and teaching MOOCs. California’s High Tech High has two starting in January: New School Creation and Deeper Learning 101. MATCH Teacher Residency offers Surviving Your Rookie Year of Teaching.

‘We are creating Walmarts of higher ed’

“Speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down,” according to some professors, reports Timothy Pratt in The Atlantic.

Under pressure to turn out more students, more quickly and for less money, and to tie graduates’ skills to workforce needs, higher-education institutions and policy makers have been busy reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, and cutting some courses, while putting others online.

Now critics are raising the alarm that speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down.

. . . “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,” says Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education — mostly university professors — will meet in January to discuss the rise of online courses and performance-based funding.

If states fund universities based on measures such as graduation rates, rather than enrollment, faculty will face a “subtle pressure” to pass more students, says Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Only 56.1 percent of college students earn a degree within six years. President Obama has called for increasing the number of college graduates to make the U.S. first in the world in educated workers.

Top higher ed stories of 2013

The rise of MOOCS lead Ed Central’s Top Ten Higher Ed Stories of 2013. Also on the list: Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, “the first school to award federal aid based on direct assessment of students’ learning,” instead of credit hours; President Obama’s plan to rank colleges by “value” and “merit aid madness.”

Future MOOCs: Just for jobs?

In a few years, MOOCs went from fad to destroyer of higher ed to flop, but MOOCs have a future, writes Rachelle DeJong on Minding the Campus. It lies “somewhere between adapting to a niche clientele and rebounding to capture” hundreds of thousands of students.

She envisions three possibilites.

First, MOOCs could become “advanced technical schools and outsourced employee training,” as predicted by Walter Russell Mead.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is is moving in this direction after giving up on competing with brick-and-mortar BA programs.

The new MOOC-ish master’s degree program at Georgia Tech is an example: AT&T is a major funder of the Georgia Tech initiative, planning to send its employees through the program and to hire additional high-performing program graduates. Forbes reports that a growing number of businesses are authorizing MOOC versions of their training courses.

MOOCs could be “usefully middlebrow,” a sort of Readers Digest version of college courses, suggests University of Michigan professor Jonathan Freedman. It might be college lite, “but it’s not comic books, either,” writes DeJong.

It’s also possible no-cost MOOCs will “encourage renewed interest in the humanities,” DeJong writes. When college costs are high, students are drawn to what they see as practical STEM courses.

MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low

MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low, argues Kevin Carey.  Only 4 percent of registrants in a Penn study completed their Coursera course, but that includes a majority who never logged on or quit after one log in.

MOOCs are hot, but do they work?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, but how much are MOOC students learning?

Community college students are more likely to drop out of online classes and earn lower grades, a new study finds.

The college advantage is narrowing

College graduates’ earnings advantage is narrowing slightly, according to two new College Board reports.

Flip MOOCs to help community college students succeed, suggests Bill Gates.

Attention must be paid

Instead of catering to short attention spans, schools should teach students to pay attention, writes Benjamin Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor, in Slate.

Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience.

Maintaining attention is a skill that can be learned, he argues. Students need to exercise their “attention muscle” to strengthen it.

Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

Young people raised on brief, simplified info-bits won’t realize what they’re missing, Schwartz believes. “Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.”

“In the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short,” writes Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.

 Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”

Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions.

Kamenetz sees the “pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style” as a sign of a new power dynamic.  “Many people have something to say.” In the traditional classroom, “traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.” On the Internet, no one has to listen to anyone else.

Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?”