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Udacity reports better results for its online education experiment

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Earlier this year, online education startup Udacity partnered with California’s San Jose State University (SJSU) for a first-of-its-kind program to introduce students to online education.

In education circles, all eyes were on this program, which could set the standard for pure online learning across the country.

No pressure or anything.

Unfortunately for Udacity, the program fell flat, with more than half of students enrolled in the online program failing to pass the final exam. At the time, Udacity’s chief executive Sebastian Thrun said the company was still “experimenting and learning” in the face of criticism that claimed digital learning would not be a viable alternative to instruction in a physical classroom.

However, Udacity gave it another shot and plans to see this program through multiple semesters.

After a few tweaks, the company just reported that its summer pilot has been far more successful. Thrun, who is also a Google fellow and Stanford lecturer, published a blog post with the results.

“In short, pass rates are up and match more closely those in SJSU on-campus classes,” Thrun announced.

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For the summer program, Udacity used data from the spring and added:

  • More course support staff
  • Hints and tips for the most challenging exercises
  • Anyone currently enrolled at SJSU could sign up (in the spring, many of the students enrolled had part-time jobs and didn’t attend many college-level classes)
  • The program, dubbed SJSU Plus began in January with just under 300 students in three courses. Over the summer, they added two more courses, with 2,091 students enrolling in all five classes
  • Changes to the pacing methodology — students were informed earlier if they were falling behind
  • Interestingly, college credit was not the leading motivation for students to take these courses for credit. “Love of learning, career advancement, and lack of options were all part of the equation,” said Thrun.

Thrun said that Udacity will continue to improve the program over time, particularly when it comes to supporting struggling students. With the online program, students only have one shot to pass an exam. They will likely have more opportunity when the course relaunches in January, 2014.

In its own blog post, SJSU hinted that it will work to communicate better with students who opt for the online program.

SJSU is committed to this program as it provides access to education for students who may not otherwise have been able to attend college.

“A 30 percent pass rate does sound low, until you stop and think that most of these students would not otherwise have had access to the course at all,” the blog post reads.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has repeatedly spoken in favor of Udacity, and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) spoke at San Jose State University to introduce the online program.

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. The argument goes that 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.


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