News of the Week: Robo-Grading Debate, MOOCs Promoting Peer Collaboration & New Ed-Tech Tool

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series I share noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.


Stanford University launched new MOOC platform NovoEd this week.

In this post I’ve included the key developments of this past week that will keep readers in-the-know on education news. Another new MOOC platform, NovoEd launched by Stanford this week offers challenging courses and takes a unique approach to team projects and peer grading, and the machine grading of essays—the debate continues and is an issue that prevents one school from joining edX. Also, I’ll introduce a new tool that bring interactivity to online learning.

1)  Machine Grading Generates Petitions, Debates and a Message
The NYT story, Essay-Grading Software Offers Professor a Break continues to generate serious and heated debates. This particular article has received almost 1,000 comments, many from students, parents and teachers vehemently opposed to machine grading. [Background for readers not familiar with machine grading: a software program is programmed to provide a grade on student essays based upon factors such as essay length, grammar, sentence length, etc. However it cannot provide comments on tone, logic, development of main idea or thesis, etc.]

Online Petitions: This week I came across a site launched by a group of educators, Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment that has collected over 3700 signatures of individuals opposing machine grading. The groups’ mission “to eliminate computer scoring of essays used in any decision that might affect a person’s life or livelihood and should be discontinued for all large-scale assessment purposes.”

College Rejects edX – machine grading a factor: The use of machine grading by edX was of serious concern to Amherst College a [top-rated] liberal arts college that had been considering joining the edX consortium. This week Amherst announced it has decided not to partner with edX, citing several reasons, and computer-grading software was one of the major concerns.

They [edX representatives] came in and they said, ‘Here’s a machine grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job,’ ” Sitze [professor at Amherst] said. “I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at that point that there was not a good fit.”  (Inside Higher Ed, Rivard )

I admire Amherst for the in-depth process administrators and faculty appeared to follow to determine whether to join in on the MOOC parade. In the end, faculty voted to move more class material and classes online and to create ways to incorporate technology in the classroom rather than join edX, which sounds like a rational decision. Reading the background of how the school came to this decision, it does make me wonder what process other higher education institutions do [or don’t] follow when considering what to do about MOOCs. Hmmm.

2)  MOOC platform NovoEd: Good courses but potential challenges with peer grading System
Another MOOC platform launched this week NovoEd [formerly Venture Lab] and seeks to differentiate itself from other MOOC providers by promoting peer collaboration. I am both intrigued and impressed by the line-up of classes NovoEd offers. The course Mobile Health without Borders for example, will operate more like a conference than a course. Its focus is on global health challenges, and students will work in teams on small group assignments with the primary goal to “help you prepare for the Health Innovation Challenge, an opportunity to work with a global multi-disciplinary team and world-class mentors to design a solution to a health challenge you care about.”

There are eight courses in total, including Hippocrates Challenge, Technology Entrepreneurship and more. It really is a tremendous opportunity for interested individuals to participate in such courses with faculty from an excellent school such as Stanford.

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 12.43.54 PM

‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ course offered through NovoEd

Though the primary challenge I see with the platform is the team work assignments and the respective peer grading process. Here are some of the issues—how effective and inclusive can groups be when working in large teams assembled by algorithms? This platform apparently has software which separates learners into groups based on certain criteria. These are not self-selecting groups, which usually is how it goes in other MOOCs.

Differing Views of Groups vs Individuals
Another factor is the potential impact that cultural differences will have on teamwork. Though diversity in groups is a positive in terms of the multiple perspectives put forth—the problem I anticipate is NovoEd’s sophisticated peer grading program, where group members grade one another on each individual’s participation and contribution to team assignments.  Venture Lab [before becoming NovoEd] named and described this process as a “Reputation System’ for rating peers (evaluations, forum posts, team contribution)” [Stanford Venture Lab].

I believe this process of grading individual team members undermines the purpose and value of teamwork. Rather than working together to sort out differences during the process of working on an assignment, the system supports addressing the issue not in real-time, but after the fact through [anonymous] grading.

Furthermore, the idea of assigning grades to an individual’s work on a group project is a reflection of the North American value system, which values individual contributions over team. Other countries view teamwork as a collective effort, and the idea of grading individuals within the team is quite extraordinary. Professor Geert Hofstede created a well-known framework centered on four dimensions [individualism versus collectivism is one dimension] for analyzing how countries values affect workplace interactions and productivity.  I see these dimensions playing a role in the projects put forth by NovoEd. You can find out more from this website and even compare different countries rankings of its values.

Several of my peers on Google+ completed one of the first courses on Venture Lab, and have positive feedback about it, as well as some constructive. Overall it appears NovoEd has a tremendous and worthy platform and selection of courses. I look forward to reading about the results.

New Ed-Tech Tool to Support Interaction in Online Courses


This platform looks like its worthy of investigating further – as it provides easy way to build interactive content into online courses: “Smart Sparrow is an Australian ed-tech start-up pioneering adaptive and personalized learning technology. It was founded by Dr Dror Ben Naim who led a research group in the field of Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Educational Data Mining at the University of New South Wales in Sydney resulting in the development of the Adaptive e-Learning Platform”.

Have a great week!

5 thoughts on “News of the Week: Robo-Grading Debate, MOOCs Promoting Peer Collaboration & New Ed-Tech Tool

  1. Pingback: Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break | weiterbildungsblog

  2. atkinsonmichael

    oooh I love these weekly updates, nice job. I just stumbled onto your blog when googling for what others had to say about how some Coursera MOOCs are horrendously bad and others are amazing. I am utterly in awe that a class can have 60,000 students and their video lighting is awful, the design is ugly, the teacher does nothing but an info dump etc. wow…

    Anyway thanks for the heads up about Smart Sparrow (eager to check out what they’ve got) & NovoEd. I just enrolled in NovoEd’s “A Crash Course on Creativity “, what a cool offering!! (hopefully I have the bandwidth for it!)


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Glad you found my blog and you like the weekly updates. Coursera, though a great platform for learning, has courses that range from fantastic to poor. Let us now how the NovoEd course goes. I would love to hear your feedback, as I am sure other readers would. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share. Debbie


  3. Proactive U. (@ProactiveU)

    I wondered about “job security” and “quality feedback” questions too. It seems to me for academics, outside of English, having a program that students could use prior to submission of work to “fix” or “improve” grammar might not be such a bad thing. This would allow us to concentrate on assessing the students’ grasp of our discipline’s technical language and implications.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Yes I absolutely agree with you! This type of program used as a tool for students would be excellent. However, this tool is being presented as a method to replace instructor grading. For instance the edX platform is considering it as an assessment method for its classes with essays, etc. If college students are taking a MOOC for credit, this is what many educators are concerned about. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂



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