Education

California university’s online education experiment gets an ‘F’ — for now

Image Credit: National University / Flickr

San Jose State University is shuttering the five online classes it introduced in April, a decision that may prove to be a major setback for online education.

On Thursday, the university announced it would suspend the courses, which it created in conjunction with online course provider Udacity. More than half of the students enrolled in these courses failed the final exams.

Udacity’s failure is a temporary blow to online education as it attempts to become a viable alternative to lectures and classroom teaching at universities.

“The plan right now is to pause for one semester. There are a couple of different areas we need to work on,” San Jose State spokeswoman Patricia Harris said about the courses offered in conjunction with Udacity, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

Harris said San Jose State will continue to offer online courses developed with edX, a provider of open source education. EdX courses are an amalgam of online components and classroom study. The nonprofit was founded at MIT and Harvard in 2011, and has grown to 12 university partners. Read more about EdX here.

Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, who is a lecturer at Stanford University and a Google Fellow, said the data gleaned from the experience is valuable despite the high failure rate.

“We are experimenting and learning. That to me is a positive,” he said.

The school — and California’s political leaders — had exceedingly high hopes for this new online component.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has repeatedly spoken in favor of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) spoke at San Jose State University to introduce the Udacity classes, which generated a great deal of media hype.

Brown believes that programs like these are a solution to the education crisis in California: Only 16 percent of state university students graduate in four years.

Due to budget cuts, thousands of students are on waiting lists to take required classes. If they could take these courses online (and pass them), students could move through college on time, and professors would have more time to teach specialized material.

The online programs introduced by San Jose State were all basic and introductory: elementary statistics, college algebra, entry level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology.

“MOOCs have a huge role to play in addressing the quality and capacity issues we’re seeing in the California education system,” said Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller in a recent interview with VentureBeat. Udacity rival Coursera has received the lion’s share of attention, and it recently raised $43 million to bring online education to emerging markets.

Koller was brought in to advise the government back in March, when the State Senate introduced a bill to force California’s public colleges and universities to give credit for online courses.

She suggested a “blended learning” format, meaning a combination of face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities, a strategy that San Jose State will now adopt.

With this blended learning approach, the school will be far more likely to succeed. When classes were purely taught online, many of the students that enrolled had part-time jobs and didn’t attend many college-level classes.

“We had this element that we picked student populations who were not likely to succeed,” Thrun told Chronicle reporters.

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