Can computers mark exams?
Blog followers will know that there is little is more reliably guaranteed to get Beard reaching for her lap-top than some new development in on-line learning. This is not (simply) because I am a nasty old Luddite. In fact I have become something of a convert to putting public lectures on-line. The events we've been launching at the British Museum, for example, in connection with the Pompeii exhibition are reaching thousands more people by being put on-line, and also reaching those who live miles away from London and could never get there in person. And that's great.
Not that there isnt a downside for the lecturer, mind you. Time was when you could give a public lecture or seminar more than once, in different parts of the globe. Now you'll find it's instantly podcast and you can't ever use it again. I mean, however value-added your actual presence is, you can hardly deliver to a group of people, whether they are paying or not, a talk that they could have through their computer at the click of a button. The result is -- since it takes (me at least) a lot of time to construct a new lecture -- that you end up going to fewer fewer places and doing fewer gigs.
But all the same, the balance still seems to me to come down on the side of new technology in the case of public lectures and events. That isn't the case for a lot of what is called on-line learning, and for the replacement of face to face instruction with some form of web-delivery.
If you want a frightening glimpse of the future, take a look at this article in the New Yorker, which heralds -- not-uncritically, I must concede -- the dawn of MOOCs: that is "Massive Online Open Courses". One of its lead characters is Greg Nagy, Professor of Greek at Harvard.
In fact, the article is well worth a read for anyone who wants a glimpse of the different styles in the US and UK academy. I dont think this description of Nagy -- "He wears the crisp white shirts and dark blazers that have replaced tweed as the raiment of the academic caste." -- will ring many bells on my side of the Atlantic. Crisp white shirts and dark blazers are not much in evidence in Cambridge, England.
But the reason for the article focussing on Nagy is his MOOC course on the "Concept of the Hero" (actually “CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero") with its more than 31,000 enrolments. As soon as I read this, one side of me said "tremendous" at that: 31,000 takers for a Classics course. But then I read more carefully.
For a start, Nagy's description of how he has altered his university course for online consumption is a series of euphemisms for dumbing down. It now comes in bite-sized chunks:
"When he began planning his MOOC, his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to figure out how to dramatize the instruction."
And it is enlivened by staged debates with a couple of the production team pretending to be students:
"Nagy said he wanted to avoid “The Greg Show,” in which students saw only his talking head. When presenting Achilles’ kleos quandary, for example, he was sitting at a table with two members of his skunk-works team, Claudia Filos and Jeff Emanuel, both posing as students.
They nodded as he talked. Then Filos spoke up:
"So this one small passage, actually, has a lot to teach us about the whole epic tradition."
Nagy: "In a way, it’s a micro-narrative of the whole Iliad, Claudia. I couldn’t agree more.""
So, we are left to conclude, students at the non-online Harvard get real discussion, face to face. Online it is faked up for you, and you can communicate yourself via the message board.
When it comes to assessment, all you can do with so many takers is a series of multiple choice quizzes:
"‘Why will Achilles sit the war out in his shelter?’ Because ‘a) He has hurt feelings,’ ‘b) He is angry at Agamemnon,’ and ‘c) A goddess advised him to do so.’ 'No one will get this', <observes Nagy>. The answer is c).
But for the future, there is a whiff that computer grading of essays may be just around the corner:
"edX <a non-profit MOOC company> has been developing a software tool to computer-grade essays"
Even the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, has to go to some lengths to state the obvious objections: “I think they <computers> are ill-equipped to consider irony, elegance, and . . . I don’t know how you get a computer to decide if there’s something there it hasn’t been programmed to see.”
But I also couldn't help wondering about cui bono -- or, rather, who's actually benefitting from this. This stuff tends to get hyped as a democratising move, to bring the great teachers out to a wider group of students. But there is obviously big money here. edX may be "non-profit", but money is very definitely on the horizon:
"Agarwal <edX's president> realized that he was onto something big. When the M.I.T. and Harvard brass approached him about running a mooc partnership, he drew up a budget of sixty million dollars. At current rates, he estimates, the investment will cover edX’s needs for “approximately a couple of years.” He said, “As the business builds, we will see how it goes, and what we really do, what we don’t do, and shuck and jive as we go along, as you might imagine in any start-up company—this is a start-up company.”"
It's hard not to think that there is more to this than bringing lectures to the masses.