Mar 6, 2024 - Technology

Teachers are embracing ChatGPT-powered grading

Illustration of a stylized cursor hand holding a red marker writing "A+".

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new tool called Writable, which uses ChatGPT to help grade student writing assignments, is being offered widely to teachers in grades 3-12.

Why it matters: Teachers have quietly used ChatGPT to grade papers since it first came out — but now schools are sanctioning and encouraging its use.

Driving the news: Writable, which is billed as a time-saving tool for teachers, was purchased last month by education giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whose materials are used in 90% of K-12 schools.

  • Teachers use it to run students' essays through ChatGPT, then evaluate the AI-generated feedback and return it to the students.
  • "We have a lot of teachers who are using the program and are very excited about it," Jack Lynch, CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tells Axios.

📝 How it works: A teacher gives the class a writing assignment — say, "What I did over my summer vacation" — and the students send in their work electronically.

  • The teacher submits the essays to Writable, which in turn runs them through ChatGPT.
  • ChatGPT offers comments and observations to the teacher, who is supposed to review and tweak them before sending the feedback to the students.
  • Writable "tokenizes" students' information so that no personally identifying details are submitted to the AI program.

What they're saying: Writable is based on an AI concept called "human in the loop," Lynch says.

  • "In this case, it's a teacher that's in the loop before any of the content or feedback goes back to the student."

The big picture: Teachers are already using ChatGPT and other generative AI programs to craft lesson plans, syllabuses and curriculums — not to mention grading papers and checking students' work for AI-enabled plagiarism and other forms of cheating.

  • But now formal AI grading tools are coming down the pike to enshrine and codify this practice — for better or worse.
  • Alternatives to Writable include Crowdmark, EssayGrader and Gradescope — and ChatGPT directly — to name just a few.
  • McGraw Hill — another educational publishing giant — tells Axios it has a similar tool in the works that'll "use GenAI to provide interactive assessment and feedback to students and insights to educators in writing."

Yes, but: AI grading tools can enable shortcut-taking by teachers, depriving students of more meaningful feedback.

  • Diligent teachers will probably use ChatGPT's suggestions as a starting point, but others may pass them along verbatim to students.

Friction point: As schools struggle to craft their AI policies, there's debate over where to draw the lines. Is it academically honest to use ChatGPT to grade papers? Does it shortchange students?

  • Education technology companies say that automated tools like Writable are meant to give teachers more free time and flexibility.
  • If AI does the heavy lifting on grading, time-strapped teachers will have more time to devise creative lessons and get to know their students, the argument goes.
  • The goal is "to empower teachers, to give them time back to reallocate to higher-impact teaching and learning activities," Lynch says.

Threat level: Some parents are up in arms about AI-generated comments on report cards — but they're not unanimously opposed to AI-assisted grading.

  • When asked if "K-12 schools should be able to use AI to evaluate students' academic performance," 45% of parents said "yes," according to a poll released in October by the National Coalition for Public School Options, a group that supports voucher programs.

Between the lines: AI has been grading student assignments for years, but it's mostly been aimed at big high school and college classes with lots of students — not the lower grades, where 1:1 teacher feedback is (arguably) considered most essential.

  • "The actual process of grading, we have simplified significantly," McGraw Hill CEO Simon Allen tells Axios, citing platforms like his company's Connect, which uses non-generative AI and is aimed at high-enrollment classes.
  • Connect "uses AI to do auto-scoring on content and writing style and delivers instant feedback based on scoring rubrics set by the instructor," per a news article in Campus Technology in 2020.

"If you're teaching 1,000 'Principles of Economics' students, all sitting in a massive auditorium, how on earth do you know how many of them have understood what you said?" Allen says.

  • "You're not going to physically hand-grade every single essay or multiple choice activity. You're going to utilize the technology we've given you."

Our thought bubble: Teachers and students alike will be using ChatGPT and its ilk going forward — so the focus should be on setting guardrails rather than tsk-tsking.

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