Need-to-Watch-Videos: Three Clips that Promote Thinking Outside-of-the-Box

iStock_box7XSmallI interrupt this regularly featured ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series to bring you three media clips that may promote thinking-outside-of-the-box—a different way to look at three much discussed and researched issues in education. I engaged with three media clips this week that were not targeted to educators specifically, but provided deep insights; each clip presents a unique perspective on a provocative topic in education.

1) What predicts Student Success?
Angela Lee Duckworth: The key to success? Grit

Much researched, pondered and discussedwhat predicts a student’s success? This Ted Talk features Angela Duckworth, an educational psychologist who left teaching seventh graders to search for that elusive factor that predicts student success in school. She conducted extensive research to find out. Her research revealed that it’s not IQ, family income, precociousness, or talent, but it’s grit. Grit is defined as passion, perseverance, and relentless drive. Students and adults with grit are in it for the long-haul, they don’t give up when faced with obstacles, but continue moving towards a goal they have set out to achieve.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, the book by Paul Tough discusses Duckworth’s work and writes about schools and programs that aim to teach grit through character building education. I read this book recently, and would recommend it to parents and educators interested in learning what contributes to the grit factor [though it’s still inconclusive].

2) Educators and Artificial Intelligence
Interview: Charting technology’s new directions: A conversation with MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson.

This clip featuring MIT’s professor Erik Brynjolfsson shifted my [resolute] viewpoint on the role of machines in teaching and student learning. Brynjolfsson discusses recent innovations in artificial intelligence and how it will impact society significantly over the next five years. Though Brynjolfsson didn’t mention education specifically, his talk motivated me to think about the relationship between man and technology quite differently.

I posted several comments this week in response to a blog post about this topic on e-literate, Getting students useful feedback from machine learning. This is the second post on e-literate about machine learning, and both have generated much discussion. My position has been one in opposition to machine assistance, regardless of how it is used. This specific post describes a conversational agent that supports student dialogue in small group discussions by a technique called accountable talk.  When I watched this interview clip something clicked. As I listened to Brynjolfsson speaking of how machines, artificial intelligence can be used in conjunction with humans to create better conditions, I thought of the potential that machines might be able to create with teachers to create better learning conditions.  I haven’t changed my mind completely, but I am looking at this topic from a different point of view.

“… humans and machines are complementary. Machines aren’t perfect or even very good substitutes for humans in some areas. But by working together, by racing with machines, we can do more than the machines by themselves or humans by themselves could do.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 9.36.09 PM3. How an education icon adapted to the Internet
An interview with Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica

The Internet is disrupting traditional models, ways of doing business in all sectors including education. This interview highlights the issue of adaptation and a change of thinking in response to technology.  Many organizations have adapted quite successfully, some have failed and others continue to struggle.  Which is why I found the interview with the president of Encyclopedia Britannica most intriguing. One would think this iconic company, relied upon for over two hundred years as a primary source of information would be doomed in the age of the Internet. Yet it is not so. Encyclopedia Britannica is flourishing and successful  even though it ceased to print its famous set of reference books last year after 244 years. The company has shifted its model by responding to the societal shifts resulting from technological advancements. In the interview, the president speaks of the natural evolution of the product.

We had known for some time that this day was coming. Given how little revenue the print set generated, and given that we had long ago shifted to a digital-first editorial process, the bound volumes had become a distraction and a chore to put together. They could no longer hold the vast amount of information our customers demanded or be kept as up-to-date as today’s users expect.

The way the company adapted to the digital age is most remarkable. It made me think about how Encyclopedia Britannica was able to respond to the digital age where others have failed. Are there any parallels between Encyclopedia Britannica and education institutions? Some would say absolutely not—Encyclopedia Britannica is a business. I see it differently, what about you?

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Click this image which links to HBR’s webpage featuring the recorded interview and its transcript.

I hope you enjoyed these videos and were inspired in one way or another.

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.

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‘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!

Giving Feedback to Students: Instructor vs. Machine

“edX, a nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will release automated software that uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers.”  John Markoff, New York Times

T-Pain's Singing Teacher

There has been much discussion this week among educators about the idea of robo-grading, or machine grading, prompted by the New York Times article Essay Grading Software Gives Professors a Break of which the quote above is an excerpt. To date over 1,000 comments posted to the article, most vehemently opposing the idea of automated grading. Quite by coincidence, I posted an article on this blog, Four Reasons Why we Need Instructor Feedback in Online Courses that emphasizes the value of instructor feedback specifically in online courses—and I stressed why MOOCs won’t cut it. 

My argument is that undergraduate students need constructive and specific feedback to develop their writing and critical thinking skills, and a massive course such as a MOOC cannot provide it. My view contrasts starkly with the president of edX, Dr. Agarwal.  Agarwal is convinced that students can learn from, and develop writing skills in a MOOC setting with feedback via automated grading.  It’s the immediate feedback that is useful states Agarwal, and that students are able to “take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers” (Markoff, 2013). Hmmm—while I do agree that immediate feedback supports the conditions required for learning, I don’t see students being motivated to rewrite an essay again and again.

How Does Automated Grading Affect Student Motivation?

In response to the NYT article, Elijah Mayfield, founder of LightSIDE Labs, developed a computer program that uses “machine learning to automatically assess written text“.  Mayfield wrote a post for e-Literate discounting the claims outlined in the NYT article which generated over 50 comments, mostly from university professors opposing the robo-grader concept. I have minimal experience with machine grading, and my comments to Mayfield’s post took a different (perhaps less informed) approach, focusing more on the conditions of learning. The concerns I have focus on students perception and their willingness to consider automated grading as valuable. Also its effect on student motivation, thus potential learning. Two of my recent posts, here and here, reference research studies that support explanatory and constructive feedback from instructors.

Below is the comment I posted in response to Mayfield’s post Six Way the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong on e-Literate.

Thank you Elijah for this in depth post. Questions I have-how do students perceive machine grading? And how much research has been done on the impact on learning performance and motivation?

I wonder what the implications are (or will be) on students’ motivation, and quality of their effort and work? Students spend time on writing essays, some more than others, yet for students to know that a real person will not be reading their essay, could impact many processes. My teenagers have been exposed to automated grading periodically at their high school and they both strongly dislike it (despise it is a more fitting term). They discount its value completely. I predict that teenagers and young college students will not be receptive to this type of grading. Why should they spend hours researching, writing and re-writing an essay when they know no one ( a real person) will even read it? Even more so in a MOOC that is not for credit, why on earth would you write an essay for an automated grader?

For large-scale classes, as you discuss in your post, peer grading would be a far more valuable exercise and learning experience for students than machine grading. Two studies I have read show that there is 20 to 25% grade inflation with peer grading, but the learning for sides, peer and student is far more meaningful in my opinion.

I am all for technological advancements, yet at some point are we not going too far, and when will that be? (A rhetorical question). However, I do look forward to reading further and learning more about this method. Thank you for the thought-provoking post. Debbie

Response from Elijah Mayfield:

Debbie – There are mixed results in the literature, but most of all they point to a negative impression from students if they’re working purely alone, even if writing skill does go up. However, if automated technology is being used in a collaborative setting, scaffolding the interaction, we see almost the opposite effect – compared to a control it increases student satisfaction with the learning experience, and their own self-efficacy, even if the learning gains on top of that collaborative process are modest…

Mayfield’s response is fair and honest, and I appreciate his willingness to engage in discussion with readers that commented and expressed skepticism, if not criticism of his program. I encourage readers that are interested in learning more about the topic to read the post and the discussion that follows it.

Let’s Think about This More…

I want to learn more about the idea of machine grading, and am eager to review feedback from students after edX implements its grading software that Agarwal speaks of in the NYT article. Though I remain skeptical—I’m keeping my mind open. As mentioned, I am most concerned about its implications on student motivation, and the potential long-term effects on learning should machine grading become the norm. There is an emotional side to this story, the idea of students making personal connections and feel that their writing is of value when writing to a real person. Can the joy of writing be fostered when writing for a machine?

Further Reading:

Image credit: Mike Licht,’s photostream (Flickr)