Grades seem to matter more than content and learning these days to most students. Can something like Udacity or a MOOC fix that?

This is a pretty nuanced topic, and I’m not an extremely nuanced person, so we’ll tread lightly (gawd, I miss Walter White) for a second here. I’m in school right now, and I happen to be about six to eight years older than a lot of people I go to school with; a good percentage of them are straight out of undergrad and I am by no means straight out of undergrad, so that might color some of my experiences, for sure. But virtually every class I’ve attended over the past two years, everyone is insanely grade-focused; as in, when actual content and learning is being presented, kids are on Facebook or their phones (generalization, but I’d say over 60 percent), but when grade rubrics are being discussed, it’s full-on attention. I always find this ironic: ignore the content that drives the grade, but worry about how to get the grade? Weird. But American business is structured the same way: the how never matters; the what matters. In that way, maybe higher education is preparing kids for that type of future — all about short-term achievements and knowing what boxes to check to get rewarded accordingly. That’s a depressing view of the world, but there might be some accuracy in it. Grade inflation is up partially because professors know about the grade obsession and don’t want to deal with students bitching at them.

The thing is, grades don’t really matter to employers unless you’re straight out of school, and let’s be honest — if you’re straight out of school right now, you’re a millennial, and if you’re a millennial, you probably ain’t got no job. I understand on surface why people like grades — it ranks them and evaluates them, which is a broad need of each person — but honestly, they mean nothing if they’re based on hitting spots on a rubric and not actually learning material. They mean even less if it cost you $200K to do this. Basically, higher education is a bit of a mess right now. 

Are there answers to the idea of actual-content-meaning-more-than-grades? Probably not without a massive generational shift in how we parent and teach kids what’s important. But in terms of the bigger ideas around content, some things are out there. Here’s a good article about Udacity, which has ties to Google and Stanford (two nice brands to be wrapped up with):

“You want learning to be as much fun as it is to play a video game,” says Sebastian Thrun, a Google vice president and Stanford research professor best known for his role in building Google’s driverless car.

Would agree with that. Death by lecture, death by PowerPoint, so ….

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he famously told an audience in January at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Munich. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”


If we made learning fun, could we make the learning matter more than the grades?

Here’s a BYU forum on learning vs. grades; if you look through the comments section, the most prominent response is people liking classes where the learning is tied back to some real-world application. This is a huge thing for me. I had a professor last year whose slides always had a 1992 or 1998 copyright on the bottom left. These were business/economics classes. Do you really think nothing has shifted in terms of strategy or thought since 1992? I’m in a class now where most of the readings assigned are from 1999-2002. Again, there’s more current literature on these topics just via a Google News or Google Scholar (for the academic side) search. If you’re just teaching the same crap you’ve always taught because you’re familiar with structuring your class that way, that’s helping no one. Everyday, writing this blog, I see articles that connect things I’ve learned in a class back to what’s actually happening in the real world. Literally every hour. But higher education isn’t set up like that, and that might be the essence of the problem.

The idea of Udacity or MOOCs catching on has a long way to go. My mom is a super woman, but she’s also a very ‘I’ve lived on the Upper East Side for 40 years’ person. If I ever approached her and was like, “I want to take a MOOC instead of applying to Yale,” she would literally have absolutely no idea how to deal with that. Generations have been built on “Oh, well, Annie’s at University of Michigan…” as a cocktail party/neighborhood meetup staple. You can’t just shift that overnight, even if the person talking about Annie being in Ann Arbor is paying close to $300K all-in (probably two full years salary, if not more).

There’s a MBA revolution on the MOOC side, which might help. But a recruiter for a big firm will still look at a MOOC-driven MBA and a Columbia MBA and take the latter 9.7 times out of 10. This whole idea about the effectiveness of MOOCs will be a fight for the next 10 years, as academia feels threatened (their monetary model is essentially at stake) and the idea of completing a B.A. in 12 months will confuse and shock Type-A people. Plus, for MOOCs to totally catch on, you need an entire shift in the way we recruit people — and that’s already a bit of a train wreck. 

I think the bottom line here is that the problems with higher education broadly reflect some of the problems with America itself — we focus too much on the superficial and the product launch-type events, and not enough on what comes before that; as in, what builds people into the minds capable of great steps forward, which America has done very well. Someone needs to come along and do for higher education what others have done for online shopping or the phone in your pocket — because ultimately, the former is a bigger need.

Ted Bauer