It’s Time to Reform Learning Measurement

Letter grades, GPAs, degrees, certificates and the quest for the perfect measurement.

GUEST COLUMN | by David Blake

CREDIT DegreedOur lives are increasingly data rich. The demands for educational measurement continue to grow—from the epics of students’ high-stakes testing, the politics of teacher measurement (and pay), higher education’s quest towards competency-based education, and professional learning’s venturing into the world of micro-credentials and new-age certificates. Our current measurement tools are at best mediocre for the learner, and downright abysmal for hiring managers. Given the accelerating change in the way people learn, the world is ripe for a stronger way to signal learning and skills aptitude.

To most hiring managers, what really matters are the skills, achievements, knowledge and potential a person has, regardless of where they were gained.

If you believe the adage that once something is scored, it becomes a game, then consider this a brief digest of the game mechanics of education — and the strengths and weaknesses of each. 

Letter Grades/GPA

The most commonly used mechanic from grade schools through to universities is the one with both the greatest amount of ubiquity and longevity. Its also the most difficult to both rely upon and change as a signal for ability or knowledge.

What makes the GPA so clean as a signaling tool is also its greatest weakness. On the one hand there is currently no more concise way to communicate years of formal learning. I can tell you I got an “A” or a “3.9” and there is a high likelihood you will have strong context for what that means. But the GPA was developed as an internal rubric to better rank and score a set cohort of students, a job at which the GPA has done fairly well. It hasn’t, though, evolved so well in its newfound role, that of an aptitude signal to potential employers.

It was in the late 18th century that grading students’ work beyond a simple pass-fail was documented, both at Yale and Cambridge. In 1785, Yale President Ezra Stiles graded his 58 seniors, noting there were “twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores, ten Pejores.” The earliest system of our now recognized GPA measurement was established purely to signal to graduating students how they ranked among peers upon graduation. Over time, the tool was adopted across all universities and even the U.S. Naval Academy and professional boxing. It was only natural that as more and more people graduated from college, the job market would lean on this system to signal education and skills in general, especially in the absence of another way to signal skill aptitude.

This now de facto tool has developed some meaningful limitations, though. Grades are not scarce, and have inflated over time. In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were “A”. Now, 43 percent are. In fact, it is the most common grade by far. But the fact the GPA cannot reach beyond formal education as a signal is perhaps even more challenging. In the past, this has not been much of a stumbling block since people tended to stay at their employers for long stretches, career specialties were more limited, and the difficulties and expenses of accessing learning beyond the traditional college degree were high. Of course, all of this has changed, and that has made the GPA a flashlight of a signal when a lighthouse is what is now needed.

Lastly, GPAs do not measure academic outcomes, only an overall journey, which means we are penalized for a bad grade in an art class when even if we are top of our class in our chosen major of Physics. If a student reaches mastery, should it matter what their curve to that endpoint looks like?


If you believe credentials are a form of currency for human capital, we can measure degrees against the attributes that make currency valuable: store of value, limited supply, divisibility, portability, and general acceptance.

In many ways, degrees transcend the dollar in influence. Consider how much people have traded money for the promise of a degree. The $1.2 Trillion in crippling student loan debt in the U.S. is exhibit A. Add this to the fact that degrees are considered intelligent financial investments that cannot be lost or quickly negated of value, and it’s clear our culture is addicted to the college degree.

Degrees are also considered one of life’s great achievements. Like money, a degree is hard to earn. If you ask someone in their fifties, “Tell me about your education,” they will skip decades of their lives, and their learning, to answer with their college degree or where they went to university (or that they didn’t). The degree’s value persists through life.

And that’s the rub. While the college degree strives to represent in a single title what was the major part of a person’s lifelong education, it doesn’t begin to quantify everything today’s learners are doing – or what their future potential might be. Google has all but abandoned the college degree as a useful signal in their hiring process. A recent Venture Beat article says, “Many businesses ‘require’ a college degree; at Google, the word ‘college’ isn’t even in its official guide to hiring. With the rise of self-paced college courses and vocational learning, plenty of driven people can teach themselves all of the necessary skills to work at the company.”

One of the most damning shortcomings of the degree is that it is binary — not “divisible”. Ninety percent completion does not capture the learner 90 percent of the value. In a world where nearly 50 percent of people who attend college fail to graduate in 6 years, it means as many people aren’t able to get credit for the learning they have done.

The degree’s saving grace is its portability and widespread acceptance. It is used in every sector of the economy; it sits across all majors and universities; and is universal as the standard of educational attainment. Its cross-sector standards reinforce its ubiquity; I need not know about medicine to have context for what it means for you to be an MD. At an undergraduate level, many degrees can hold value across vertical boundaries — for example, an English major working in marketing. That cross-sector portability helps entrench the degree’s ubiquity against more innovative, modern micro-credentials like the Nanodegree and MOOC certificates.

Professional Certificates

Certificates can take many forms: There is an alphabet-soup of professional certificates like CPA or CNA, company- or product-specific certificates like Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), and role or job aligned credentials like PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® and Six Sigma Black Belt.

The inverse of the English degree’s cross-sector portability, professional certificates are narrowly valued, though highly relevant and of high value against the narrow range of opportunities.

But one big challenge with certificates is that in many cases they only serve to signal minimum levels of competence, not upwards levels of aptitude. If you have 50 CPAs in a room, you don’t know who is the best accountant, you only have the satisfaction of knowing they are all some qualified to some base-level.

What is even more limiting with certificates is they are largely proprietary and therefore incomparable. All certificates require you to pay for specific content, take specific courses and pass specific assessments, which is helpful within a very narrow context but extremely challenging for anyone outside the category to quantify or compare against like certificates. Which is better, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), or the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification, and what does each really signify?

Efforts to shift higher education towards a competency-based system are an effort to capture the value of certificates’ relevancy. However, the trend carries the risk of trading relevancy for ubiquity given that there are no standards for competencies — and that each university, market sector, and employer measures competencies differently.

No Perfect Game Mechanic for Learning

There is no perfect game mechanic. That’s why great games employ many mechanics —some designed to engage you from second to second, some minute to minute, some to get you to come back each day and others yet to engage you over the longer arc of months, even years. Mechanics are needed for personal feedback as well as to signal accomplishment to others.

All Learning Should Count

To most hiring managers, what really matters are the skills, achievements, knowledge and potential a person has, regardless of where they were gained. Today, we only have crude proxies for aptitude in these areas in the form of university and employer pedigree and candidate references. And racial, age and gender biases often skew even those. It’s why we turn to our own networks to hire whenever we can.

What we need instead are tools that can measure these inputs agnostically, augmenting irreplaceable human judgment with systematic rubrics to gauge and rank individuals, and to provide people with the tools they need to signal to the market what they can do and how they compare to others – not just what they have done.



Cambridge: Postman, Neil (1992). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 13



David Blake is the CEO and Co-Founder of Degreed, an education company that measures and recognizes all learning and skills. David was part of the founding team at, an accredited online university whose mission is to be the most affordable degree in the world. He was also part of the founding team at Zinch, acquired by Chegg (NYSE: CHGG).

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Trends | The Future of Digital Learning

CREDIT PBS LearningMedia Future Digital Learning

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Cool Tool | myDistrict360

CREDIT myDistrict360In today’s education technology space, data analytics have emerged as powerful tools for teachers, administrators and other key staff members. Data can provide a snapshot of what students know, what they should know, and what can be done to meet their academic needs. myDistrict360 is a comprehensive analytics tool meant to deliver customized data to all Skyward users throughout a district, providing both a high-level overview and granular look into vital information and student trends. Accessible and easy to understand, there is no need for custom coding or outside professional services. Educators and administrators are able to rapidly develop, refine and adapt even the most sophisticated analytics with a user-friendly dashboard that can be configured based on roles. As with all Skyward products, myDistrict360 provides a strict level of data privacy and security. Guidance counselors, curriculum directors and principals – everyone’s going to find the data they want with myDistrict360. Check it out.

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Cool Tool | Stepping Stones

CREDIT ORIGO Education Stepping StonesProduced by ORIGO Education, Stepping Stones is a comprehensive, core elementary mathematics curriculum. Written and developed by a team of experts that utilize all available educational research, it’s delivered online to give educators one central location to access all lesson plans, student activity pages and teaching tools. Accompanying the online program are full color student books that provide blended learning in print and on iPad and Android devices for K-5 grade levels. A smarter and cost-effective approach to teaching mathematics, Stepping Stones delivers multiple ways to differentiate classroom instruction. The online innovative program helps grow students’ thinking and reasoning skills, presents methods to assess deep understanding and assists in the shift to digital instructional materials. It’s 100 percent aligned with the Common Core State Standards and creates a classroom where math makes more sense. Check it out.

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IoT in Education

Exploring the evolving potential for digital learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Perry Correll

CREDIT XirrusYou simply can’t get away from the Internet of Things (IoT). Gartner predicts there will be 25 million connected “things” in use by 2020. The news sensationalizes the impact IoT will have on all of our lives and the “paradigm” shift it is generating – equal to, if not exceeding that of the Internet. But in reality, what truly matters is how this shift addresses our specific needs.

It is very easy to envision how IoT capabilities can be used in STEM programs, robotics and anything having to do with gathering specific data points.

IoT’s impact was originally seen in logistics and inventory management, then surveillance and tracking. These days, however, IoT can provide benefits to almost any market. One that is proving to be impactful is education. IoT technology is bolstering education to bring about an age of digital learning, updating campuses and classrooms for the better. While the technology is a vital component, how educators use it is just as important.

Over the years, we’ve seen generations of new classroom technology meant to transform learning, TVs, computers, the Internet, whiteboards/smart boards, educational games, video conferencing, student response systems, the list goes on. In every case, you can identify examples where the technology was deployed and yielded successful results. However, there are many cases where the technology did not stick, leaving educators waiting for the next solution to surface.

There are numerous use cases for IoT in education – examples we run into constantly are how IoT allows a student in the dorm to be automatically informed when a dryer is available, or when the soda machines are refilled. Similarly, we hear about the middle school student who uses beacons or QR codes to help him/her find his/her third period classroom. But how does this advance education? And what about the student who can’t afford a phone or doesn’t understand the QR code technology? BYOD was initially seen as a great learning tool, but resulted in huge challenges for IT administrators and increased the digital divide between those who could afford and those who couldn’t. Could we see this again with IoT?

IoT leverages advances in electronics, enabling the development of smaller, reduced power, and most importantly offering less expensive wireless systems that can be integrated in almost any type of device. Although Wi-Fi is the most recognized form of wireless technology, IoT leverages other connectivity technologies including Zigbee, NFC, RFID and Bluetooth.

Some of these technologies require so little power that a watch battery can last for years, while some, like RFID, can even be passive, requiring no power source at all. Additionally there are technologies like EnOcean, which uses energy harvesting to generate power from slight mechanical motion (pushing a light switch) or even from the environment (light or temperature). This is then converted into energy to operate low power wireless systems. Bottom line is the technology exists to add wireless sensor capabilities to virtually any device, including wearables, books, small sensors, fixed structures and even people.

Technology will always have a place in education. It is very easy to envision how IoT capabilities can be used in STEM programs, robotics and anything having to do with gathering specific data points. It’s all in the potential. IoT can simplify and automate access to information. This saves teachers and students time and effort. But it is ultimately the educator who needs to be able to identify the right technology and integrate it properly in the classroom for education to evolve.

Perry Correll is principal technologist for Xirrus, a Wi-Fi technology company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. 

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