Professors angry over essays marked by computer

US universities offer software which they claim can instantly grade students' essays and short written answers

Students could soon find their essays being instantly graded by a computer - rather than waiting weeks for a professor’s ponderous comments.

New software developed in the United States which means they receive an instant grade through their computer if they send it online will be available for UK universities to use.

The software programme has been developed by EdX, a non-profit making enterprise set up by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and will be available free on the web to any organisation that wants to use it.

It uses artificial intelligence to grade students' essays and short written answers - freeing professors to carry out other work.

So far its use has been confined to the US - where a row is raging over whether it is right to use it to measure students’ essays which, in some subjects, include a fair amount of opinion around the factual content.  Many academics believe it cannot replace the words of wisdom of a professional lecturer.

However, Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, predicted it would be a useful pedagogic tool - allowing students to redo essays over and over again thus improving the quality of their answers.

“There is huge value in learning with instant feedback,” he said.  “Students are telling us they learn much better with instant feedback.”

He added: “We found that the quality of the grading is similar to the variation you find from instructor to instructor.”

An online petition against the practice, launched by a group calling itself Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment, has amassed almost 2,000 signatures - including that of Noam Chomsky - protesting at the idea.

The group’s petition says: “Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read’. They cannot measure the essentials of communication; accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organisation, clarity and veracity, among others.”

On the other hand, students said that - if it was available for the individual to use - it could become a handy tool for a student to test the water on their essay before submitting to a professor for grading.