The days of university academics spending their time marking essays, red pen in hand, could be over. In a revolutionary trial at a British university, a computer is marking essays instead.
Dr James Christie, a lecturer in computing at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, who developed the software program, says it could drastically reduce the workload of academics and examiners, according to The Sunday Telegraph.
The Schema Extract Assess Report (SEAR) will not eradicate the role of the examiner, though. A lecturer grades a small sample of essays and gives information on why marks are allocated. The program analyses an essay's vocabulary, grammar and sentence length, and develops a formula for marking others.
Dr Christie, who has spent seven years researching "computer assisted assessment", said last night that technology had moved on from simply distinguishing "yes" and "no" answers. Computers have been used to mark multiple choice papers, but Dr Christie said the SEAR program could grade essays in geography and history.
Literature essays, he said, would be difficult, but "content-rich" questions that asked the student to describe something could be marked by the program.
Several hundred undergraduate essays have been graded by SEAR and appear to compare well with human markers. Another program, which can detect plagiarism, will be tested. If successful, the scheme will be made available to commercial exam companies and universities.