Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Special Blog Assignment

A World Where Grades Will Be Left Behind

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, USA TODAY interviewed some of the USA's greatest visionaries to talk about the world of tomorrow. Mary Beth Marklein published the article "A World Where Grades Will Be Left Behind" to discuss just what the title implies: what would the world be like if there were no grades? In the article, USA TODAY interviewed Sebastian Thrun, a Google Vice President and Stanford research professor best known for his role in building Google's driverless car. Thrun's idea of an educational reform is described in his version of learning, which he says can be made free and available to anyone who wants it. Thrun is the owner of Udacity, which is an education company based in California that provides a higher education for free. Udacity's goal is to offer a university-level education of high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, they claim to have connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. In Thrun's version of education, he explains a few key concepts: no one will be late for class, failure is not an option, and lessons are made to look like games, such as the popular physics-based puzzle game "Angry Birds."

The whole vision of Udacity came to Thrun after he had the opportunity to teach a free online artificial-intelligence course that drew more than 160,000 students. This experience was so profound to him that he announced he no longer could teach in a traditional Stanford classroom. Thus, Udacity was born, and Thrun began his mission to revolutionize education. He made reference to the concept of "flipping the classroom," which occurs when students watch a video at home and come to class ready with questions to be answered by the teacher. Thrun explains how both online learning and flipping the classroom are made possible through technology, and because of these two concepts, classes will involve a sequence of increasingly more challenging exercises and quizzes aimed at helping students master a particular concept or skill. Thrun calls grades "the failure of the education system," so therefore, he intends to eliminate them completely. Instead, students will take as much or as little time as they need to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill or concept. This type of online education will be free, but related services may involve a fee. All in all, Thrun hopes to democratize education through technology.

Dollar signs
As I was reading this article, the message Mr. Thrun described seemed really cool and much more innovative than the education we see in many classrooms today. As I thought about it and looked at it more closely though, this type of educational reform raises a sense of skepticism. Yes, a free education where you get to play games on the Internet and learn at your own pace sounds great, but in reality, is this concept of education truly possible to the magnitude in which Mr. Thrun described? I have my doubts. The first item on his list that seems out of reach is the free part. If the top, most sought-out professors from all around the world are being called upon to teach these online classes, how does the Udacity team plan on paying them a salary? As a future teacher, I'm all about teaching my students because I truly want them to learn and grow, but in reality, I will be seeking a paycheck as well. I'm sure many of the professors Udacity has confronted feel the same way. I understand the students would be charged fees every once and a while, but simple fees would not be enough to pay for the numerous things this operation would call for: the high-tech computers and software that would be needed, the team working on these computers and programs, and as I mentioned earlier, the professors teaching the courses. "Free" sounds great (especially to myself, a poor college kid), but when it comes down to crunching the numbers, money speaks rather loudly.

Grades in Classes
The next item on the list that raises concerns for me is the fact that "a single class might enroll tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students." I guess this sounds so bizarre to me because I personally like one-on-one contact and time with my teacher. If there are this many people in a single class, how is an instructor suppose to keep up with everything the students are doing? I understand Mr. Thrun's goal is to create an education that will respond to each individual student, but with that many students, I have my doubts. The third item I'd like to talk about is the "no more grades" idea. As a college student myself, this sounds wonderful. As long as I'm understanding the material and learning at my own pace, what do grades matter anyway? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, I think grades, or rather some kind of assessment, is needed. I'm all for students being able to take the time necessary to master concepts and skills, but without some form of assessment, I think students lose some of the responsibility needed to become successful. I don't necessarily think the "A, B, C, D, F" system is the only or best solution for assessment out there, but I do believe teachers should provide students with feedback on how they are progressing in a given class. Normally, that feedback comes through assessment.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Mary Beth Marklein's article in USA TODAY because it brought up some really neat ideas for the future of education. Though I don't totally agree with everything Mr. Sebastian Thrun is advocating with the online learning society created by Udacity, I still think he offered up interesting and innovative ideas. I just believe a few things need to be tweaked to make them more realistic and doable. One thing Mr. Thrun and I most certainly agree on is how important technology is for the future and progression of education and for the way we teach our students.

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