Education By Algorithm

John Warner over at Inside Higher Ed had yet another great colum. More States Adopt Robo-Grading. That’s Bananas. It’s regarding more places wanting to use algorithms to assess work. Seriously, go read it.

Grading by algorithm is stupid. Here’s the example of a computer generated paragraph that got perfect marks on the GRE essay algorithm given in the article:

“History by mimic has not, and presumably never will be precipitously but blithely ensconced. Society will always encompass imaginativeness; many of scrutinizations but a few for an amanuensis. The perjured imaginativeness lies in the area of theory of knowledge but also the field of literature. Instead of enthralling the analysis, grounds constitutes both a disparaging quip and a diligent explanation.”

Did that make sense? Nope.

What’s the point of essay writing? No seriously, what’s the point? It’s to train students to explain their point or argument in long form and back it up. From that they learn to tailor their writing to their reader, to structure an argument in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps them understand the purposes of supporting arguments. When you replace the reader with an algorithm that can’t assess the strength of an argument you change that. The reader is no longer a person, so they’re not learning how to write so a human can understand. The purpose of supportiong arguments never comes into it because the algorithm can’t tell the difference between a strong and weak argument, so the only thing they’re learning is how to structure their argument, except the reader is an algorithm, so they’re learning a single structure that “passes” the test.

If this is how they’re going to grade essays then there’s no reason to write essays.

Lets expand this. What’s the point of essay writing? To learn how write so a person will understand. If a person isn’t reading it, what’s the point?

What it does is make it easier to require teaching to a test, or in this case an algorithm. And once you’ve done that you can start removing anything that doesn’t help when being tested by that algorithim. Once that’s happened then there’s no real reason to teach the course at all, since no one learns anything important from it.

Something similar is happening in mathematics. Tests can’t determine if you followed the right procedure, only if you got the final answer right. So why bother teaching multiple methods of getting there? Besides that it helps give you a fuller understanding of mathematics and makes future math lessons easier. And for history why teach anything that won’t be a multiple choice question on the final test? Besides that by doing so you reduce history to a caricature that an unscrupulous rhetorician or politician can hang whatever they want on regardless of what the truth is.

I’m not saying this would lead to the downfall of mass education, but it would definitely contribute to it.

Trades Shortages and Unemployment Rates

The BC government has announced $75 million in funding for trades training programs for the next year. This is because:

“Our goal with the Skills for Jobs Blueprint has been to ensure British Columbians are first in line for jobs in our growing, diverse economy,” said Premier Christy Clark. “And as we move closer to realizing the generational opportunity of LNG, thousands more of those jobs are just around the corner.” (source)

Which makes you think there’s a major skills shortage in BC. Except there isn’t. Not for trades anyway.
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Education and the Aboriginal wage gap

The National Post had an article this morning titled “Government stumped as report shows aboriginal wage gap widening, unemployment growing”

The federal government touted a number of initiatives Wednesday for improving First Nations’ well-being but could not explain why a new report showed the prosperity gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people was widening in some cases.
source

There are a lot of reasons for the wage gap but I’m going to focus on one. And yes, it’s education. I discussed this earlier but I want to go into a bit more detail.

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An Ideal First Year?

I think a lot about what students need to know to be successful.  And more and more I feel that the old elective model does a huge disservice to first year students. I was reading this article about the differences in perspective between educators and employers. I think that we need to think less of education as being discipline specific and think of it more as being general leading to specific. So the first year would be a more general education, the second being general within the chosen discipline, and the third and fourth years being the same as they are now.

I’d like to propose a standardized first year regardless of program. This curriculum assumes that the student is attending an English speaking university.

The guidance behind this is taking a liberal arts concept and applying it to the key soft skills of oral communication, written communication, reading, basic math, working in teams, thinking skills, and computer use.

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Disrupting Higher Education?

Talking about the university system as if it’s doomed is fairly common. Here’s an article from three years ago outlining some common metaphors about the end of the post secondary system. The author’s disdain for them has been proven right so far. And yes, there are some for profit colleges running into problems because they were going for the quick money and shareholder support rather than looking at the long view the established PSIs have. And yes a small liberal arts college decided that it would rather close than leverage their endowment to reinvent itself. Whether that was a good or bad idea isn’t the point here.

The most important thing to remember about all of this is that we wont wake up one day with the university system crumbling or even disrupted. There will be warning signs.

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