Sunday, July 8, 2018

Is edtech simply automating tradition?

CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by ISAPUT on Wikimedia Commons
For a few years the internet was an exciting new space where we thought we could build a better world through innovation, borderless collaboration and a culture of sharing. Today big business reigns supreme and technology is being used for control, surveillance and commercial gain. After several years of speculation and experimentation we are now beginning to see how analytics and artificial intelligence are going to be used in education. As governments become increasingly concerned with accountability, profitability and competition, technology is feeding this drive with statistics.

A post by Mike CrowleyGoogle, ISTE, and the Death of EdTech, reflects on the recent ISTE conference and sees worrying tendencies that today's edtech industry is increasingly about control rather than creativity. Technology is being used to make traditional practice more efficient rather than fostering real learning.

All week, the ISTE Expo Hall gushed with predictions that Artificial Intelligence will automate the traditional classroom. Auto-grading is now a thing. Marketeers touted emerging tools to help students study smarter, by enabling them to memorise more information faster. Ultimately, though, the Big News, like Google Classroom, is the proliferation of software that allows teachers to monitor and keep students on-task. The lofty ambitions for education were summed up thus. Make tradition more efficient. Stop bored students from cheating on mindless, low-level assessments. Deliver content like Windows 98 is the next big thing. New tools. Old thinking. Systems, not learners.

The tyranny of tradition is extremely hard to escape from. The traditional educational paradigm of learning facts that can be easily tested and categorised is a perfect fit for the smart systems of today. We can use analytics and AI to provide the statistical illusion that students have achieved the learning objectives we set them. But technology can and should be able to do so much more and that's why Crowley states:

Make no mistake about it. EdTech as we currently know it is dead, it’s over. We should retire the phrase right now. If education is to be the target of an industry that has grown increasingly obsessed with standardization, control, automation, and delivery efficiencies, then we must opt out.
Related to this is the use of automated grading of assignments that has been under development for several years now. This involves computer analysis of a written assignment to check for coherence, argumentation, linguistic style, grammar and fluency. An article on NPR, More States Opting To 'Robo-Grade' Student Essays By Computer, examines recent experience of automated grading at several US universities. Many educators are impressed by the accuracy of these tools, often giving similar grades to human examiners and if the computer is unsure it flags for teacher assessment. The potential savings are obvious and very attractive to cash-strapped institutions.

Several states including Utah and Ohio already use automated grading on their standardized tests. Cyndee Carter, assessment development coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education, says the state began very cautiously, at first making sure every machine-graded essay was also read by a real person. But she says the computer scoring has proven "spot-on" and Utah now lets machines be the sole judge of the vast majority of essays. In about 20 percent of cases, she says, when the computer detects something unusual, or is on the fence between two scores, it flags an essay for human review. But all in all, she says the automated scoring system has been a boon for the state, not only for the cost savings, but also because it enables teachers to get test results back in minutes rather than months.

Impressive indeed, but there will always be ways to hack the system and already there are examples of text generators that produce nonsensical texts that satisfy the grading system's preferences. This type of cat-and-mouse game has nothing to do with learning. When the only purpose of writing an assignment is to get a grade then people will simply do whatever it takes to get that grade as easily as possible. If the assignment has real meaning to more people than simply an examiner (or a robot) then the game element disappears. We need to develop methods of assessing student ability based on the impact of their projects on real people. Maybe traditional for-teacher's-eyes-only assignments are the problem.

One clear use for automated grading systems is to help the students improve their writing skills. The system can provide repeated formative assessment opportunities, helping students to improve the coherence and style of their assignments. They can submit several times during the writing process, something that no teacher could ever have time to deal with, and then submit the final version to the teacher for grading. However a more collaborative approach already used by many teachers is to encourage peer assessment with fellow students providing feedback during the writing process. This method benefits everyone and the students can learn a lot from being actively involved in the assessment process.

The real purpose of technology should be to facilitate human collaboration and learning. I love using digital tools to facilitate creative and collaborative activities and that's where educational technology should be focused. The use of big data in education, however is worrying and we need to be very careful not to be tempted into handing over control of our students to big business.

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