Machine Learning and Teaching

I just responded to an unsolicited email from a consultant working for Pearson publishing – perhaps you received one too. The sender was requesting my participation in the following scheme:

They provide five essay questions that I can assign to my students. My students enter the essays through an online portal. The essays will then be graded by “subject area experts” and the grades and comments will be returned to me – I am free to pass these on to students or use as I like. For my trouble: “you would have a couple of essays graded for you. Also, Pearson will pay you $100.” 

They will use the students’ work to “build the bank of student essays needed to develop the product.” The product is a “computer-assisted grading program that will support you and your students when assigning short writing assignments.”

What they are up to, one suspects, is developing a training corpus for machine learning algorithms.  It’s a relatively straight-forward classification problem.  They don’t need to figure out what makes a good answer to a given essay question – if they have enough human evaluated examples, they can train the machine to do just as well as the humans.  Just as well, that is, as the “subject area experts” they hire.

In my email response to the consultant I raised a different question: how much are they planning to compensate the students whose copyrighted intellectual property they are asking me to facilitate them obtaining for the development of a commercial product. I asked what advice their lawyers had given them regarding the commercial use of material that students are compelled to produce and submit as a requirement of a class.

Would you require your students to send their work to Pearson?  Would you accept payment for doing so?   Even if this is considered fair use under copyright law*, should institutions and instructors be in the business of building up Pearson’s content for a product that Pearson will then turn around and sell back to us?

Personally, I say no thanks. Seems to me just one more step toward making colleges mere franchises and store fronts for educational publishers. It’s too bad we are not collectively producing tools like this for the public benefit rather than being coopted into contributing to the progressive privatization of pedagogy.

And I think I’ll start recommending that my students consider appending a CC BY-NC 4.0 license to work they are willing to share.

*A similar question has arisen in connection with Turn-It-In a service that checks for plagiarism. That company has prevailed so far in lawsuits that claim it makes illegal use of copyrighted student material.

See Also

First Food Courts, Next Academic Content Franchises

My conservative prediction is that within five years we will see examples of not-for-profit private colleges turning into franchises for textbook publishers such as Pearson or Cengage.  The relationship will be similar to the one colleges now have with their food service vendors.

The academic content and platform industries (textbook publishing on the one side and products like BlackBoard and TaskStream) will soon converge.  They companies that brought us the mediocrity by turning text books into Time magazine look-alikes and the companies that turn teachers into data entry clerks know a gold mine when they see one.  Students are already accessing all manner of internet content as a part of their education – why not figure out how to package the lot of it and license it to colleges and universities who will market it to students for you? 

There are almost too many contemporary trends supporting this convergence to keep count.  

The play being made by textbook companies has long been facilitated by faculty members who over-rely on textbooks (either because they are over-worked teaching 5 courses a semester or because they’d rather do their research than teach or because they are burned out).

A lot of investment in educational technology is motivated by the dream of allowing administrators to manage education centrally. As often as not there is a direct tradeoff: centralized information and control equals more clerical work for faculty and increased attractiveness of out-of-a-box teaching.

Meanwhile, the push for competency-based education that “emphasizes assessment rather than instruction” further dupes us into believing in “full digital learning experiences” as the El Dorado of higher education.

One could continue with what accreditation agencies and state and federal education departments and major educational philanthropies are up to, but you get the picture. 

This from most recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education: