This week I read a story about robo-readers – computer programs created to “read” final student essays and calculate scores automatically. The theory holds that these programs will free up instructor time, which will then allow them to increase the number of essays they assign to students, which will enable students to refine their writing skills, without burdening teachers with an overwhelming and unmanageable workload.
As just about anyone who’s ever mastered a skill, taught a course, or received a diploma can attest, practice, practice, practice is the key to real learning. In fact, making mistakes and figuring out how to resolve them is the most educational part of every student’s journey.
With that in mind, it seems to me that practice ought to be valued as much as any final project. The work students create and submit during the learning process, with all of its mistakes, explorations, and creativity, is key to understanding. A “robo-reader” is not equipped to decipher the subtle signals contained in evolving student work; it is able to evaluate general correctness, but not monitor comprehension and growth. So far, only a real human mentor has the capacity to comprehend individual student development and provide tailored guidance.
A computer program can read and tell you if you’re answer is within the confines of what it recognize as a correct response to a given question. But the communication skills of a computer program are limited, even in the best of circumstances.
Consider that it is entirely possible to write a correctly spelled and grammatically correct sentence that makes no practical sense:
Despite its perfectly acceptable sentence structure, this sentence doesn’t work. Good grammar and spelling are necessary for clear communication, but we know there’s much more to it. At some point we want to go beyond plugging words into appropriate spaces and start talking about interesting ideas! Computers are cold, plain devices. Real, human teachers are able to interact, reason, and inspire students to think critically in ways that computers may never be able to do. (Still, we love our computers, even if they can’t reciprocate!)
I take great pride in knowing that O’Reilly School of Technology does not automate the grading of any student work. Instead, we utilize software to make the entire project submission and mentor assessment process easier. When grading a student project, O’Reilly School of Technology mentors have access to every incarnation of that project, from the student’s first submission to the last, and all of the practice steps in between. That’s how O’Reilly School of Technology mentors make sure that each student can produce not only a solid final project, but also has a clear understanding of how they got there, from beginning to end.
Good mentors know that learning happens when students practice; the assignments that lead up to course completion are as important as the final project. That’s the reason we keep this question in mind when creating our courses: If student work isn’t worth a teacher’s time to review, then why would it be worth a student’s time to complete?