Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What the search for technology says about us

In the New York Times an article appeared about using computer programs to evaluate writing. After all, we know what good writing looks like. It has complete sentences. Punctuation is in the right place. Verbs are used appropriately. The spelling is accurate.

When you thin about it, it's just an algorithm. Create the right formula and a computer can read and evaluate any paper.

But can it?

I can understand why we want to find a computer program to evaluate writing. Evaluating writing takes time. People get tired. A computer could grade hundreds of papers and never get sleepy. A computer could go all night.

It would not be unusual for two people to judge a writing selection differently.

Computers would not be swayed by emotion. If a paper fits the system then it gets a high grade.

But there is something deeply unsettling about using technology to grade a paper. Why?

Can a computer program - can an algorithm - evaluate the depth of an idea?

Can an algorithm evaluate creativity?

Would an algorithm capture the power of the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech?

Would an algorithm tend to make writing more similar - to fit the formula - when what we really want is an algorithm that would encourage creativity, original thinking, and passion?

Maybe we are searching for an algorithm to evaluate writing because most of what we want students to write is not worth reading.

It's not that our students don't have things to say for they do.

Could it be that what we ask students to produce is rather dull. If that's the case then maybe having an algorithm evaluate it would be appropriate. I could save my time to read things that inspire and challenge. I could save my time to read things that make me think or look at things differently.

My students can write those things.

I'm just not sure that an algorithm would be able to evaluate the good stuff.

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