In many college programs, students have to wait days or weeks for their instructors to critique their written work.
But it doesn't have to be that way, experts say. Swap that human instructor with a computer, and students will have a grade within seconds.
As massive open online courses, or MOOCs, continue to generate interest, more online students are being exposed to computer-assisted essay grading. EdX, the nonprofit MOOC provider founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, launched automated grading software last year and has made it available for free on the Internet.
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Computer grading isn't a new phenomenon. In the online education world, for example, many learning management systems are equipped to grade multiple-choice and true-false tests. Automated essay grading, however, is another creature altogether -- and a very controversial one.
Computer essay grading has been more popular in K-12 education, where it's used for high-stakes testing. So far most online students haven't had to face it in their virtual classrooms, though that could be changing, experts say.
"Part of it is a marketing issue. Higher ed doesn't have the market demand that K-12 does," says Mark D. Shermis, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio who has studied the technology. "As the technology becomes more sophisticated there will be a higher acceptance, but it's going to take several years for it to work its way through higher ed."
Automated essay grading uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers. The technology typically requires human instructors to train the software by grading anywhere from 100 to 1,000 essays.
From there, the software essentially mimics the instructor, scoring the essays on a rubric created by the teacher. The computer also gives students general comments about their work. In some instances, students are welcome to improve their grade by trying to write another answer.
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Advocates of the technology say online students shouldn't fear the technology, which they consider a reliable tool that saves teachers time so they can focus on other things, such as planning engaging lessons or answering questions. They cite studies showing that computer grading is just as dependable as human grading and argue that teachers can always overrule the computer if they disagree with a grade.
The software can also save schools money, they say.
Some kind of computer-assisted grading is necessary in classes that enroll hundreds or thousands of students, says Charles Isbell, senior associate dean for the college of computing at Georgia Tech, which plans on using computer grading technology to enhance the peer grading that occurs in its MOOCs.
"The biggest cost of these things, online classes where people need to be graded for credit, is grading," he says. "As the number of students grows, you have to hire more and more of these people. If you want to keep the cost down -- if you want to make the degree affordable -- the obvious way of doing that is with computer-assisted grading."
Automated essay grading certainly has its critics, many of whom refute studies defending the technology and argue that students will never get a truly fair essay grade from a computer. One group called Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment, for example, has collected more than 4,100 signatures protesting automated grading from educators and others across the country.
Shermis says his research has shown that computer-assisted grading is just as effective as human grading. Still, he admits the technology has plenty of room to improve. In some instances, he says, people have been able to earn high grades by writing nonsense.
"It can't tell you if you've made a good argument, or if you've made a good conclusion," he says.
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The technology also doesn't have a great way of judging creativity, he adds. "There may be somebody out there who has come up with a brilliant solution but if it hasn't been predetermined it's going to be discounted. That's a higher-order challenge but it's very important."
Ted Curran, an education and technology blogger and instructional technologist for Pearson, believes the technology can be helpful to teachers and students alike if used correctly. In his mind, professors could use the technology to scan essays for areas of weakness, freeing professors to read the work more deeply with a focus on improving students' critical thinking.
"Though I don't know that it's realistic," he says. "My fear is that people are just going to want to feed everything through it and fire all of the teachers."
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