Applying MOOC thinking to traditional passing rates

mischievous-studentrecent article in The Atlantic discussed the ways in which instructors of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) present their data, such as passing rates.  These courses are clearly a new frontier for education.  While some would argue that they represent the future of education (at least, higher education), a recent backlash and disappointing return on investment are causing some big players to rethink their role.

The author, a MOOC instructor, used some great graphics to show the relative numbers of students who enroll in the course, visit at least one page, watch at least one seminar, etc.  Her message was this: the sheer size of the course and the low barrier to entry make it unfair to count most students as being “in the class”.

Her point is a valid one.  It is clear that the extremely low cost and easy access of MOOCs lead many students to enroll who have neither the time nor the motivation to actually take the courses.  But couldn’t something similar be said for public school classes?

I mean, while none of the students in a public school classroom have technically chosen to be there, the number that actually engage with coursework is almost always less than 100%.  If MOOC instructors should calculate their passing rate using only those students who actively participated in class, shouldn’t the same be true for brick-and-mortar classrooms?  Isn’t it more fair to measure how well a teacher helped a child learn who actually wanted to learn?

The answer is very simply: No.  In today’s society, the expectation is that teachers succeed not just with the students who show an interest in their content.  They are expected to increase mastery by every one of the often dozens of students in their charge.  Today’s public school teachers are told, “Engage them.  Assess them.  Teach them.  Assess them again.”  They can’t write off any students as “enrolled but not participating.”

Is that fair to public school teachers?  Maybe.  Working with younger students, its not enough to say that they need to “choose to learn”, just as we don’t let children choose when they go to bed or what they eat for dinner.  Obviously, teachers need to find ways to reach every child in their classrooms.

But, what kinds of conversations would be started by standardized test score reports that looked like this:

72% proficient*
*95% among those who actively participated


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