Grade Inflation is Real, except it is Actually Performance Inflation - Thoughts on Online Learning by Jim Eckert

Content Author:
Cinzia Cervato

By Jim Eckert, Robert S. Kaiser Professor of Sales, Western Michigan University

A funny thing happened on the way to the disaster that was supposedly on-line education, kids learned. A lot. In fact, my experience with on-line teaching and learning is that it often out-performs in-person delivered education. This summer session I taught my usual classes, but using the same assignments, applying the same standards, and carrying the same expectations, student performances and grades went up. It wasn’t grade inflation; it was performance inflation. It was the result of a better way to deliver what we teach via the on-line environment.

This is a funny thing for me to write given that I have been a passionate educator at the University level for over 20 years. NOTHING is more important to me than the learning experience of my students. I have always spent countless hours in direct interaction with my students, to the point that the idea of a 3 credit hour class being 3 hours of student contact per week has always been a poor equation and a poor way to teach or learn.  Ask my colleagues, I have always focused on teaching and improving student learning and have greatly preferred that space over faculty meetings, academic research or committee work that has questionable value. So, do I miss the student interaction? Every day. But as a wise old, and fictional wizard of J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation once said, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Our most important job, by a factor of 10 to 1 is creating a learning experience for our students, and the reality is that a well-executed on-line course is as effective, and often more effective, than our in-person offerings. Now I fully understand that for certain disciplines the on-line approach can be very difficult. But we live in the college of business where EVERY topic can be well delivered on-line.  And the interesting thing is that when done well, the student outcomes rise. The students learn more. Grades go up.

A little background. Over 10 years ago I started to flip my classroom, recording lectures at the campus TV studio. After realizing I have a face for radio I have switched to voice over PowerPoint and most recently have used Loom to deliver my lectures. I have also long ago gotten rid of a typical final exam. There are no scantrons in my classes, no blue book essays, or other such academic traditions. There are realistic, next-level mimicking, final experiences that help the students connect the content of the class with its application in the real world. In my sales classes these final experiences are role-plays, in my negotiation class they are cases, and in other classes it is a consulting like team project and presentation.

So how did I spend class time? As hard as it is to admit now; I spent it poorly. I used the time to coach the students on their upcoming tasks, I spent time debriefing past assignments, and if it was a good day, I mixed in a little key content and some words of motivation. But there has always been a problem: Tuesday and Thursday between 11am and 12:15pm was the WRONG time to deliver these resources.

The correct time? When the students are in learning mode. And let’s all be honest; most students do not show up to class periods in learning mode. So that coaching, those motivational messages, the content highlighting I was so proud of, it was mostly wasted. 

I was providing the right resources for learning; I was just delivering them at the wrong time. And make no mistake about it, our primary job is to create the resources that allow and encourage our students to learn. I have always hated the term “assurance of learning” as I cannot control nor assure another person learns, but I can create a learning experience that has the needed structure, assignments, and learning resources that a reasonably motivated individual will end up taking the learning journey they need and that they pay for.

So, this gets me back to why on-line class delivery outperforms in-person. Because the time the students sit down to engage in your realistic, learning creating assignments is not class time. They need your lecture at that time. They need your assignment coaching video at that time. They need the tutorial you built at that time. And let’s be reasonable, most of us old folks are in bed already when the students get cracking on their assignments.

Thus, as we consider the move to on-line learning, whether it be a temporary move or a permanent move, let’s consider a few keys to creating the learning experience the students deserve. This is our opportunity in HCOB (Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University) to do on-line learning right and create a competitive advantage we can use for years to come.  What can we do? Start with the thoughts below. From there, the talent and energy this college has can take over.

Social Interaction is Not Learning: All of us who have lived in this world understand it was easy rolling into a classroom and executing our in-person class. We were humans connecting with other humans and even if our actual learning related content or activities were less than optimal, that human-to-human thing saved the day. It is like in the 1980’s when the supply chain world started to realize that excess inventory hid the problems with the distribution (and financial) systems. Our excess inventory is human connection. It is an amazing thing, but too often substitutes for real learning. Thus, to approach an on-line class we have to realize that human connection can still be created, but it will no longer hide our inefficiencies and failures related to creating a learning experience. We absolutely must still create community, but we also must be significantly better with the LEARNING resources we provide to the students. Sure, my students often laughed at my jokes, they enjoyed the energy I bring to the classroom, and they gained an appreciation that I really care about their success, but those things are only part of my job (and can be created in an on-line environment). The other part, which stripping the excess social element often exposes, is whether I have created the needed learning resources and learning opportunities (aka, assignments) to truly give the students a high chance of success. It is when you sit at your desk (or in my case, my favorite comfy chair) and ask yourself that question that we are moving in the right direction.

Timing is Everything: As mentioned earlier, the biggest advantage of an on-line environment is that it connects resources and learning together more tightly. My video lecture is watched when the student needs it. It is re-watched. It has a pause and rewind button. It is better than my in-class version as it is the best version versus the best I could do that particular day.  My coaching video that walks students through the next assignment is consumed not during class time, but as the student is fully engaged in their preparation for that opportunity (I have no assignments in my classes, only opportunities). This is the biggest game changer. I can recreate an in-class Q&A session on WebEx, but I can’t move my class experience to 8pm, and 11pm, and 3am and 6am, and all the other times students are in learning mode. My eLearning site full of resources is THE BETTER TEACHER than I.

We Must Rethink EVERYTHING. Dang I was comfortable. I have been delivering the same classes for years and while I was always tinkering with them (often significantly), I essentially was hitting rewind and execute each semester. I always joked with people that my life motto was: different semester, same stuff, but it is really good stuff (and I was likely using more colorful wording when I said it).  The major factor in that comfort was that I could always count on the classroom to be my savior. It was where I thrived. But when we move away from the classroom, we must reconsider everything. What is a better way to deliver that message? What is a more realistic, learning-oriented approach to that assignment? What good was I doing in the space between the spaces during class time that will need to be recreated. Once I started to ponder and take action on answering these questions, my class got better. My students learned more. Instead of my quality of delivery being dictated by how “on” I was that day, my video tutorial delivered the best version of my message (often after 3-4 takes).  Instead of stubbornly clinging to the idea that the students should already know something, I crafted a resource to get them to where they need to be. The result has been an improved opportunity to learn for my students, and in the end, that makes all of that hard re-thinking worth it. Perhaps another way to state this: it’s not about us, only them.

So, as we the faculty, make moves to on-line education, we need to take the same attitude that I try so hard to instill into my students: there are no tasks, there are only opportunities. And if we lead into this brave new world, there is no reason we can’t emerge at the other end better. We absolutely have the ability to deliver full quality learning experiences to the students and then down the road, we can decide what to do with all those additional resources AND that class time. Won’t that be amazing!