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San Jose State Gives Pilot With MOOC Provider a Failing Grade

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, July 22 2013

A pilot collaboration between San Jose State University and the online course provider Udacity to provide certain basic courses to students over the Internet performed so poorly that SJSU is putting a halt to the program at least until next spring.

The results, reported by Inside Higher Ed, are a rebuke to claims that purveyors of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, could save money for public colleges and universities by reducing instructor payroll costs while still leveling access to quality higher education. They’re also something that many should have seen coming — especially given that some of those claims came from people who stood to gain by attention shifting from professors to software companies. And they're an example of just how potentially catastrophic the consequences could be if a certain strain of technophilia is allowed to creep too far into policymaking.

The Udacity classes allowed students to take one of three introductory math classes for credit. About half of the pilot program students were not SJSU students, including many from the Oakland Military Institute, a charter high school. Of the SJSU students in the pilot classes, many had already failed a remedial math course.

In effect, the Udacity SJSU pilot took a group of students unlikely to pass an online class, and provided them the classes they were least likely to pass. A major study of online student outcomes from Columbia University's Community College Research Center shows students are generally less likely to complete online classes. This is even more true of students from low-income families and low-achieving students in need of remedial education. The SJSU classes offered by the pilot were similar to those discussed in the study.

A piece by SJSU faculty in the Mercury News reviews the fallout. The numbers conform to the Columbia findings: the more basic the online course, the worse the results. Compared to an 80-percent pass rate in the regular, face-to-face SJSU course, only 29 percent of students in Udacity's remedial/developmental math course passed. Only 12-percent of non-SJSU students passed the Udacity course, according to Elizabeth Cara, a professor in occupational therapy, and Kell Fujimoto who directs the university's clinical services. In an online college algebra course, 44 percent of SJSU students reached the C grade required to pass, compared to 74 percent in the in-person course, they wrote. Another 12 percent of non-SJSU students passed that course, as well. And in a statistics class, only 51 percent of students passed the Udacity course, compared to 74 percent of students taking the course in meatspace.

"We are experimenting and learning. That to me is a positive," Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun told the AP.

Indeed, when you, fail you learn, and that can be positive. Thrun might be learning what changes his business, backed by $20 million in venture capital, needs to make to succeed. That makes for a pretty soft landing after a risky jump. But some of the classes offered by the pilot were designed to fulfill course requirements demanded of all students at SJSU, who are part of a system that has struggled through tuition hikes and cuts to financial aid. While they undertook the same risky leap that Udacity did, they may find the ground a good deal harder than Thrun will.