How Software is Changing Education

Are We Scientists?

A colleague and I attended a lecture at ACT several years ago. The speaker was a visiting professor. He spoke about the use of computer programs to grade essays. Later, at lunch here on our campus, I told my colleagues that I had attended a presentation on this topic. They responded immediately with claims that no computer program could ever replace a human grader. I ask, “How do you know? Don’t we need an experiment before we can offer an opinion?”

In fact, the speaker at ACT did not claim that software can replace teachers. He freely conceded the limits of the available software. It does not evaluate all the qualities of writing that we think are important. It can be fooled. However, he had also surveyed English teachers. He knew how many student-written papers teachers read and annotate with suggestions for improvement. The number is small. A computer program can give more immediate and frequent feedback to a student than can a human teacher. Even if that feedback is in some ways inferior to the teacher’s guidance, its immediacy and frequency can make it an important complement to the teacher’s guidance.

The speaker at ACT had given the same stack of essays to a computer program and to a group of experienced English teachers. The teachers and the software produced similar scores. The software produced its scores more rapidly and more consistently.

At another meeting of professors, I heard one claim that Duolingo could never substitute for the kind of instruction in foreign languages that professors offer in face-to-face instruction. Again, how do we know if we do not test the proposition? After we have compared the proficiency of students who have completed Spanish 101 and 102 against those who have completed 200 hours of study with DuoLingo, we can comment on the relative strengths of the two ways of learning.

I have several times heard teachers of foreign languages tell me about their sampling of lessons on Rosetta Stone. They had compared their experiences and drawn similar conclusions. I did not doubt the validity of some of their criticisms. However, they also sounded too eager to find evidence that confirmed opinions that they had held before testing the product. New educational media are evolving rapidly. We will need to evaluate new educational media both objectively and repeatedly if we are to understand their potential.

Maybe Rosetta Stone and Duolingo will not rob teachers of their jobs but will instead free them to teach at a higher level than before, to students who are better prepared and more motivated than those whom they have seen in the past?