This past Thursday I had the privilege of speaking at an NYU master’s course on Database Management and Modeling.  A former colleague who serves as an adjunct professor invited me to talk about ad tech and how the role of data is changing with the proliferation of digital advertising.  The course was originally directed toward the old notion of database modeling and direct mail (the textbook for the course is from 2002), so my colleague was very excited to have a few guest speakers give a more updated view of the advertising ecosystem.

Overall, I found the students, most of whom were in their mid-20s, to be quite engaged during my talk.  As I spoke, they seemed enthusiastic and genuinely curious, and they asked some really good questions.  One student had even, without being asked, prepared a full summary of all the different types of advertising technology companies (exchanges, DSPs, Trade Desks, etc.).  My presentation and discussion took about half of the two-hour class and I decided to stick around for the rest of the class for a lesson on correlation analysis and SQL.

After a five-minute break, the students returned and settled into their seats, laptops open for their formal lesson.  However, the sentiment of the students had changed since the first half of the class.  They were a bit flatter, they seemed less curious, and not quite as interested or engaged.  The best indicator of their overall sentiment came in the form of a single question what was asked two or three times throughout the back half of the class: “Will this be on the test?”

“Will this be on the test?”

This question caught me quite off guard.

Here I was, sitting in a room of adults who are paying large sums of money to continue their formal education and one of their primary concerns is figuring out exactly what they will be tested on.  It’s as if the goal was to learn as little as possible and still pass the course.  Or worse, learn nothing and just memorize information necessary to pass the test.

I thought about this question, and about education in general, for the rest of the class.

Back when I was in college, I remember students asking this same question, and back then it made sense to me.  Students (myself included) were very concerned with getting good grades, and knowing the exact test material increased the likelihood of receiving high marks.  Like all students, I procrastinated on assignments and crammed for tests the night before – but that behavior seemed to make sense back then.  When I was in college, “learning” was almost synonymous with going to class and getting good grades.

Today, my disposition toward learning is much different.  I don’t have classes or grades, but I’m ten times more passionate about learning than I ever was back in school.  I have a genuine thirst for learning at all levels.  I listen to audio books about business management on the subway, I watch Kahn Academy courses on the weekends, and I’m constantly asking colleagues to explain how things work or why things work.  I’m engaged in perpetual learning and so are most of my coworkers.

This all begs the question: why do I love learning today while back in college I was more like the students I spoke to Thursday night?

I think the answer is: what I do today “matters.”  I work in a fast growing innovative company that’s trying to change the world and I feel that my individual contributions actually make a real difference.  Back in school, learning was an endless string of academic, inconsequential exercises. Papers, tests, worksheets, group assignments, and projects: all completed fastidiously, evaluated momentarily, and then ruthlessly thrown away.  I knew learning was important, but my schoolwork had no immediate impact on anyone but me.

Today, learning is completely different.  The reason I learn today is so I can do my job well and help make my company successful.  It’s about making a difference and being someone who matters.  I am ten times more passionate about learning today than I ever was in school because I truly feel that what I do has an impact on the world.

Just as we were wrapping up class in that NYU classroom on West 42nd street I looked around and thought to myself: how can I make this classroom experience more like my experience at the office?  How can I give these students the passion for learning that I have today?  How can we change the educational experience and make it actually matter?

It’s a big question and I’ll be thinking about this more.

In the meantime, let me know what you think.

Higher Education, a Passion for Learning and Doing Things That Matter
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