Sunday, July 12, 2015

Robograding: A Macguffin

This is the third in a series of cross-blogged posts on robograding prior to Monday night's twitter #sschat on computer assisted grading (7 pm ET) I am co-hosting with Scott M. Petri.  
Scott's first post is here
My first post in response to Scott is here

As Audrey Watters reminds us, there are two (among many) useful ways to think about education technology.  The first (and the subject of this post) is the macguffin.  Macguffins, if you didn't know, are plot devices in films that are key to the plot but ultimately the film isn't about them.  The most classic example are the useless "letters of transit signed by Charles de Gaulle himself!" in Casablanca (as if de Gaulle's name carried any weight in Vichy occupied Africa).  The macguffin isn't the story, but it hooks us into the story.  Robograding is a macguffin for a larger story.  Why do we want to use computers to assist us in our grading?  Different players in the ed-tech world have different motivations.  I started using computers because my handwriting was terrible.  Scott makes students use the apps he described in his post because he has too many students to work with them individually.  I now use computers to increase transparency and to speed my turnaround time.  ETS spends millions of dollars every year trying to develop decent robograders so they can cut the number of people they pay to grade exams by hand.  And on and on.  The numbers of reason why people use computers to assist them in grading is probably as varied as their are teachers.  But at the core of this is one concept: scale.

Current establishment education reform whether from left or right involves trying to de-skill teachers and scale programs that work.  As I've written elsewhere, I don't believe good teaching scales.   Taking a brilliant classroom teacher who is a good lecturer and building a MOOC around them doesn't scale to good teaching.  The best on-line teachers I have met are generally not great lecturers anyway.  They are people who find the disembodiment of the internet empowering and understand how to create online environments which coax contributions from those who would otherwise be silenced because they were silenced in the classroom in the past. 

So as teachers, we need to be mindful when we think about computer assisted grading.  I like tools that accomplish ends that benefit my students and make both our lives better by allowing us to work smarter not harder.   I dislike tools that end up making me work harder by requiring me to customize assignments to fit the tool, require me to teach a curriculum I didn't create, or make my students miserable by confounding them with bad writing rubrics.  If the robograder is measuring complexity of thought by counting syllables in the words used, then it runs afoul of Anthea's Axiom (named after my colleague in the English department) which is "Big Concepts, Small Words." 

Robograding is a Macguffin for that larger conversation around why we use computers and what we want out of them.  If we solely focus on robograding, we will end up teaching whatever the engineers who write the code for the robograders want us to write.  We need to take make sure that we as teachers determine what the apps do and not the other way around. 

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