No Grades, No Glory?

Cover of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle M...

Cover via Amazon

Very interesting article here by Matt Welsh (Google Engineer and ex-Harvard professor) on whether the university system is obsoleted by the proliferation of free and very high quality courses.  He has three major points, all valid and one of them I found strikingly similar to an idea proposed in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  This is the idea of grade-less courses.

Pirsig describes the current university system as “grade-motivated” not “knowledge-motivated” and Matt makes the argument that it would not be fair, in today’s system, if all the students received an A as it would not discriminate amongst the students.  Assuming, of course, that all the students learned the material equally enough.  How would an external entity then know who was the “best” student?  Yet there are grade-free universities, and have been for some time.  Two randomly selected programs are St. John’s University in Annapolis, MD and Yale Medical School.  In Yale’s case, I think the idea is that removing the anxiety over constant performance measurements (tests) and stress over fluctuations in G.P.A., enables the student with the freedom to actually learn the material and study for study sake.  Plus, medical students have to pass the board exam anyway so what to do in the case where a student passes all the university’s test but fails the boards?

With online courses there are many different course offering in multiple disciplines, but I feel that those courses which are computer science related seem to be the most successful, as evidenced by the 160,000 students that completed the intro to ai class.  (Although this could be familiarity bias on my part).  Most self-respecting hackers have the zen-like quality of a “beginner mind” and a desire to keep learning, even if the topic is not computer related.  Maybe it’s hacker ethos, but it could be that the classes are free :)  So take a free course on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I would love to see one), but don’t forget to buy the book!