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Technology and communication: Wouldn’t it be cool if AI could respond to all your texts, tweets, and posts?

25 June 2013

It’s been a full week since I returned from Louisville, where I was grading AP English exams, and it’s about two full weeks before I take off for India. At times I’m amazed at what still needs to get done for the trip (as well as personally before I go for three weeks), as well as lethargic about an event that seems so distant in both time and space. Maybe “lethargic” isn’t the right word there, but I know so little about what to expect that I don’t want to overplan.

Anyway one of the things I need to do is clear some of these tabs from my Firefox that I’ve kept open since whenever because I felt I wanted to include them in a blog post. They don’t all relate specifically to my trip, but many relate to the enterprise of global education because they involve the use of technology as a means of communicating.

For example, can artificial intelligence be used reliable to grade papers? This is an interesting question for me not only as a live (I think) AP reader, but also as someone interested in curriculum, moving toward Common Core and its emphasis on analytical, argumentative writing. Kids are going to have to write more–but how is all this going to be assessed? In an earlier post, I talked about how planning time among U. S. educators is low and even shrinking as our economy becomes more winner-take-all and contact time with students is the only task the Powers That Be want to pay us bottom-feeders of the education hierarchy for. The answer? EdX, a partnership between Harvard, MIT, Cal-Berkeley, and the UTexas system (wow, those are some heavyweights there), plans to offer free essay grading by artificial intelligence (see article here). Is this the proverbial wave of the future? According to an education dean at the University of Akron and an education consultant (sounds like nice work if you can get it), scores from artificial intelligence are “statistically identical” to scores from trained humans (presumably with real intelligence). The study is not universally acknowledged, however. MIT professor Les Perelman figured out how to trick the robo-grader with nonsense with big words, long grammatical sentences, paragraphs, and essays. You can read an essay he used to earn the highest possible score on the SAT here: The essay starts, “In today’s society, college is ambiguous. We need it to live, but we also need it to love. Moreover, without college most of the world’s learning would be egregious,” and include outrageous claims like “Teaching assistants are paid an excessive amount of money. The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents. In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, a staring roles in motion pictures. Moreover, in the Dickens novel Great Expectation, Pip makes his fortune by being a teaching assistant.” Perelman is doing more than just writing funny essays that get high scores: he has also contributed his work toward a group seeking to prevent machine-scoring of essays for high-stakes tests. Also, the National Council of Teachers of English has issued a position statement against robo-grading.

Because I’m an AP reader, you can probably imagine my skepticism toward machine-grading, and could accuse me of a facade of skepticism shrouding my insecurity about being replaced someday by a machine. Fortunately for me, at the reading’s College Board Forum, senior VP Trevor Packer, who’s in charge of Advanced Placement, said he did not want to change the current format of the exams being graded by a collaboration of high school and college teachers, although some of that collaboration might be done virtually in the future (probably due to the high cost of bringing about 2,000 of us to Louisville to shack up for a week, as well as the few places that can handle our large, and growing, numbers).

For an intelligent blog post on this topic (heck, the blogger has his own author page on Amazon!), see here. I mean, I am so totally like, yeah, what he said.

Our next topic on technology and communication deals with a study from the University of Winnipeg that shows teenagers who text a lot are shallower, more narcissistic, more likely to be racist, and–perhaps least shocking of all–poorer spellers. Combine this with another study from the University of Michigan which sees a connection between narcissists and attention to Twitter or Facebook (depending on age: those of college age and younger prefer Twitter, we older folk prefer Facebook). These findings might provoke those of us who deal with U. S. teens to utter, “No duh, Sherlock!” but then we don’t get to enjoy the chicken-and-egg debate about which came first. An Appalachian State professor finds social networking does not cause narcissism, as non-narcissists post about as much as narcissists do. The growing narcissism among younger generations (yes, this has been studied and shown too) is due more to the times than to the technology.

The Appalachian State study makes sense to me because technology is still just a tool that humanity can shape for its own ends (at least until Kurzweil’s singularity in 2045; then, the robots will outsmart us and run the show, possibly from inside our own cells–now that’s a cell phone!). But we do need to keep in mind that, while technology does allow to connect more easily and effectively, it also allows us to disconnect easily. Distracted drivers, loud talkers on cell phones, and, of course, shallow, narcissistic students–all these who populate our time show us that while technology can help us connect, technology alone won’t guarantee that we will. We still need to learn, like Tolstoy’s emperor with the three questions, that the most important person in the world is the person right before us–in the real world.

Well, that’s what I think about narcissism etc., what do you think of what I think? Post your comments below–hey, they could make you famous!

Gotta go and post a link to this entry on my Facebook page.

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