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EDITORIAL: New grading software takes humanity out of humanities

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Illustration by Rob Gebelhoff/ robert.gebelhoff@mu.edu

Illustration by Rob Gebelhoff/ robert.gebelhoff@mu.edu

Amherst College voted last week to reject a major change in the way it educates its students. Professors there decided April 16 that they would not work with edX, a nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that provides online courses and computer software for grading student essays.

When it comes to its decision on edX, however, Amherst is alone. Multiple universities, including Stanford and San Jose State, are working with edX to implement the essay software and more online coursework. EdX may be innovative, but it is not necessarily for the better.

Joseph Harris, an associate professor at Duke University, wrote an opinion piece in March on the subject in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The crucial moment in teaching, or at least in teaching writing or literature, lies not in presentation but response,” Harris wrote. “We hand students a text and ask them, ‘What do you make of this?’ Then we listen hard to what they have to say, looking for ways to help them develop their thinking.”

EdX was created to save professors time in grading papers and to provide students with instant feedback. But this implementation raises questions, such as how that feedback can really be enhanced by a microprocessor and how we have reached a point where a change like this in education is considered normal.

The acceptance of this software and other programs like it shows a growing tendency in higher education to emphasize the importance of getting a grade over truly understanding course material or learning from professors.

This attitude has permeated not just into technologies like edX but often into professors themselves. Professors at Marquette and elsewhere go beyond making their grading scales known to their students. They often spend large amounts of classroom time detailing how students can achieve each letter grade, reading every line of syllabi and rubrics aloud instead of expecting students to read them themselves.

The problem is a “chicken-and-egg” one, however, as students can be counted on to ask “Will this be on the test?” in nearly every single course. Education is increasingly being treated as a commodity, something you can buy with tuition money instead of something inherently worthwhile. EdX is simply a manifestation of this culture, eroding away the human basis of learning.

Some classes lend themselves to an environment that utilizes technology and online coursework. However, there is no online course or tool that can replace the productivity of learning from a professor and your peers.

Rebecca Nowacek, an associate professor of English and the director of Marquette’s writing center, agrees.

“Tutoring and teaching are personalized to respond to a person whose ideas are in progress,” Nowacek said. “So much of writing and teaching and learning is about communicating. Computers and technology are great and can do some of that, but they are no substitute for the community in the classroom.”

While grades can indicate how well we understand course material and how competent we are in that subject area, the true value of a class is the ability to learn and grow from the experience and insight of professors. Critical thinking is what will make us assets in our places of work post-graduation, not whether we got an A on a robotically graded paper.

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