A few years ago, when I wasn't in school, I talked a lot about different forms of self-education platforms (when i wasn't talking about bread). Over the years I've had a lot of fun listening to lectures on iTunes U and sometimes doing the reading along with the courses. One can learn a lot from these classes. However, I find that I sometimes fail to listen to the whole thing or fail to do it on a regular schedule. Part of the reasoning is that a lot of the courses don't have access to readings (or put syllabi and other information on other websites) and almost none of them allow access to exam materials, etc.
The other day, I read this article in the New York Times about a new educational group known as edΧ. Harvard and MIT started the program called edX for designed online learning. One of the major features of edX is the new ability for the software to read and grade essay and short answer questions as well as True/False and multiple choice. This feature was the main feature of the New York Times article, which made it seem as though professors were going to use this to free up time. As someone who will spend much of the next 6 years TAing, the idea of machine grading seemed to put my job at stake as well as being pedagogically problematic. However, looking at the edX website, it seems that the software is designed primarily for allowing students access to classes for free online, unlike current systems where classes are either free (with no ability to test or receive credit) or expensive (taken through the universities). While online classes can be great, a noted classicist who runs one of the biggest online classical databases told me that she taught an experimental online mythology class last year that had troubling results. Half the class enrolled online while half enrolled for an in-person class. While the students who were there in person had an average grade of a B+, the online class had a C average. While this is just one instance, I can imagine that there would be a greater disconnect for students doing online learning.
edX seems to be endeavoring to fix some of these problems. Those student motivated enough to use resources like iTunes U have the ability to test themselves on the material they learn which may promote greater retention. Furthermore, students have the ability to rewrite and gain additional feedback making testing about improvement as well as assessment. Since no institution could afford to make these classes free if they were graded by humans, the grading software can provide the ability for free learning. Students earning a passing grade will get a certificate, although obviously these won't count for much in the academic world, at least it will provide a small sense of achievement and a record of classes completed.