San Jose State’s Bold Experiment In Online Ed Disappoints, Suspends Pilot With Udacity

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The largest university system in the world has suspended a bold experiment in massively open online course (MOOC) education, after disappointing student outcomes. Last January, San Jose State University announced a partnership with online course startup, Udacity, to offer super-low cost remedial college courses to the masses.

Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal reports that pass rates for the courses were between 20% to 44%, well below the 75% typical of traditional courses. In a joint statement, the two organizations said that they will “make improvements and adjustments, ensure that campus policies and processes are all in alignment, and increase internal and external communications and opportunities for discussion and dialogue.”

On the bright side, SJSU has had much better success with Harvard and MIT’s joint online education project, EdX. In a science course that combined online and offline components pass rates skyrocketed to 91%, compared to 55% without the online component.

Part of Udacity’s disappointing performance can be attributed to the students themselves. According to the WSJ, “20% were high school students, 62% of students in the pilot were not regular San Jose students, and all of the matriculated ones had failed a remedial math class before. (Among the regular, so-called matriculated students who had previously failed, 29% passed the Udacity course.)”

In fairness to Udacity, It’s hard overestimate impact from different student populations. For instance, much of the success wrongly attributed to some experimental k-12 charter schools is due to the fact that they can select the best students. For better or worse, there are vast differences in motivation and ability of the top and bottom students, which can reflect enormous differences in class outcomes.

In all likelihood, this is just a short, temporary setback to the inevitable changes that are coming to higher education.