California Universities Aggressively Expand Online Courses, Finds Failure Rates Drop

The largest university system in America is aggressively expanding its experimental foray into Massive Online Open Learning (MOOCs), based on an unusually promising pilot course. The California State University system will offer a special “flipped” version of an electrical engineering course at 11 more universities, where students watch online lectures from Harvard and MIT at home, while class time is devoted to hands-on problem solving. A San Jose State University pilot found that the flipped class increased pass rates a whopping 46%, which university President Mohammad Qayoumi believes is enough to move full-steam ahead.

The introductory circuits course comes courtesy of Harvard and MIT’s online course warehouse, edX, a project to provide massive open online course (MOOC) to the public for free.

As we’ve written about before, the online education movement is transforming physical colleges at a crazy fast pace, much quicker than education scientists can study the impact. Even edX President, Anant Agarwal, urged caution with the results. “I would not take this number to the bank,” he told me.

It appears that San Jose edX course is experiencing results similar to when universities switch from boring old lecture-style teaching, to a more interactive form. For instance, one University of California, Los Angeles biochemistry class experiment found a roughly 18% pass rate boost when it ditched lectures [PDF].

But, one-off experiments can often seem much more promising than reality, once they are brought to scale. When new-age pilots are broadened to environments with less-than-enthusiastic teachers and students, things can fall apart.

As a result, San Jose State is opening a MOOC training center, the Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning. MOOCs are coming, like it not, as some form of online education is the only way to curb the rising debt of students and schools alike. As California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom said on a press call for the edX announcement, “The old educational financing model frankly is no longer sustainable.”