Udacity Experiment at San Jose State Suspended After 56% to 76% of Students Fail Final Exams

In January, San Jose State University (SJSU) made headlines when it announced that it would let students take credit-bearing online courses through the MOOC-provider Udacity. The courses were remedial in nature, focusing on topics like basic math, elementary statistics, college algebra, introductory computer programming and psychology. And the hope was that thousands of students could eventually take these courses at reduced rates — $150 per online course versus $620 for a traditional course. It sounded like an easy way to slow down the ever-escalating costs of secondary education. Plus we had Thomas Friedman telling us that MOOCs were going to bring about a revolution in American education, and elite universities rushing to offer courses on Coursera. So what could possibly go wrong?

By spring, everyone had to start contending with reality. It turns out that San Jose State students were failing Udacity courses at a rate of 56 to 76 percent, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Meanwhile, SJSU professors were busy writing open letters of protest against a newly-formed relationship with another MOOC provider, edX. In their letter, they claimed: “The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university,” and professors “who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.” Finally, we also discovered that, outside of SJSU, students were completing MOOCs at a rate of only 7.5% on average. With the inconvenient facts piling up, San Jose State suspended the Udacity experiment yesterday. A school spokeswoman said, “The plan right now is to pause for one semester, there are a couple of different areas we need to work on.” Like, I guess, making sure that half of the class doesn’t fail a course.

At this point, we should start taking a more sober look at the MOOC revolution. Maybe students everywhere will be taking large, scalable and affordable courses in the future. But should we rejoice? Or should we ask if we’re going to get what we’ve paid for? If you’re a lifelong learner, you probably don’t have much to lose or complain about. You might already be well educated, and you might enjoy having a big list of free MOOCs to choose from. If you finish a course, kudos. If you don’t, no worries. For undergrads, it might be an entirely different story. They might save some money, but they might also find themselves lost in a cheapened and anonymous educational experience. In MOOCs, you’re not a student, you’re a number — you’re one of 50,000 in a course, or you may be one of the 76% at SJSU that failed. I suspect that’s how many SJSU students are feeling right now. And it’s probably not what they bargained for when they first enrolled at the university.

Here’s one thing to keep in mind: revolutions almost always have mass casualties, and they’re almost always the very people the Revolution was supposed to help. It’s ironic but true. At this point, educators, politicians and journalists would be advised to take a more measured approach to MOOCs. They should adopt a position of healthy skepticism, ask more intelligent questions about what MOOCs can offer undergrads, and see real results before deciding that MOOCs are the easy solution to a complicated problem. Reflection before action never hurts, particularly in academia.

H/T Azin M.


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  1. Marc Brazeau says . . . | July 19, 2013 / 11:42 am

    It seemed to me early on that MOOC’s were being oversold for undergrads. But I think they can provide tremendous value if positioned properly.

    There are two applications where I believe they should be providing great value.

    1. Students should be able to test out of boilerplate courses for credit for a fee that covers administration and grading of tests. The school doesn’t need to administer the MOOC just the testing. At 45 when I was thinking of going back to school, I couldn’t justify going into debt for two years of pre-reqs that were mostly all on Youtube.

    2. MOOC’s could be used to assign lecture and lessons as homework and use face to face time between educators and students. In a lot of courses, well designed interactive lessons would be far more productive homework than reading chapters. If I was a professor I would be happy to outsource lecture to a Michael Sandel, Joanne Freeman or David Blight and spend more time in discussion with students.

    It’s a shame SJSU got too far out ahead and instead of phasing it in as a tool rather than a replacement.

  2. Laura says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 6:34 am

    I agree with the first commenter. Used how they are meant to be used, MOOCs are good. The fact that only 7.5% of users finish a course is nothing. Maybe it was just entertainment for them. Maybe they only wanted to know a general idea of what it was about. Or got busy with something else or whatever. I don’t think they ever were meant to replace a for credit college class. And these incoming students never said they had the discipline and drive to do a go at your own pace online class. Most incoming freshmen won’t and I know I would have been counted with them my first semester.

  3. Stephane Mallarme says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 6:53 am

    It would be nice to know (1) the number of students who paid $150.00 to San Jose State University so readers would know how much SJSU made from this endeavor in public education; (2) whether the courses themselves were of sufficient quality to warrant $150.00 per student; and (3) the deeper reasons why professors and public universities are against providing a more public education than the one in place. We’re there tutors available for these students? If they were failing these low cost, $150.00 SJSU online courses at 56-to-76%, were they passing at 24-to 44%, and if so that’s much better than the 16% success rate quoted by Gov. brown in the newspaper article. Man, what a piece you have managed to write to support your bias. Shame on you and the professors and universities feeling threatened rather than empowered; and hope to those students who were lead to believe that by being offered college credit they would receive more than what SJSU apparently offered them.

  4. Dan Colman says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 11:23 am

    Laura,

    You say “Used how they are meant to be used, MOOCs are good.” And by that, I think you mean that they’re good if they’re used casually by lifelong learners, or if they’re used as a supplement in class. But I would urge you to think about this. Ventures like Coursera haven’t received more than $50 million in funding simply so that lifelong learners can take a free course during their leisure time. More likely (to put it mildly) they’ve received this money because there’s a belief that schools like SJSU will hire fewer professors and use more MOOCs instead in order to drive down college costs. This is about taking the “cost” out of education, and it will come at a cost. Otherwise I agree with your points.

    Dan

  5. Sumant says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 11:48 am

    Stephane, it’s not just about biases. One of the reasons that a MOOC is offered at a hugely subsidised rate is that it takes out the number of things a fully-paid credit course pays for, including the cost of tutors. The assumption, for better or for worse, is that students will do on their own whatever it takes to pass the course. Sadly, most undergrads do not carry with them the necessary motivation to do so. This has next to nothing to do with the money SJSU earned, or with Gov. Brown’s statistics, which refer to a state average, not one university. I also find it very difficult to believe that SJSU could have misled students into thinking that all resources would be equally available for MOOCs as for live classroom courses. That would be patently impractical.

  6. Stephane Mallarme says . . . | July 20, 2013 / 2:15 pm

    Sumant, I am very sorry to say that it really is about gated-campus, class bias, and about sinecure or Luddite professorial thinking, and about public university prices for both the worker paying taxes and the student paying tuition and loans.

    Please do not blame the students paying $150.00 to take a credited course from SJSU and expecting that they would be getting something more than a free MOOC. This whole affair seems a pernicious way to sabotage online education initiatives. It is disgraceful.

  7. MOOC_Insider says . . . | July 21, 2013 / 4:17 pm

    For some reason, no one is telling the whole story. No one is giving course-specific data…everyone is talking about the pilot program as a whole. The statistics class (Stat 95) http://www.udacity.com/course/st095 is actually doing REALLY well! It’s just the two other courses that are dragging down the numbers…and that’s probably because of the reasons in the article. I don’t get why they’re putting the statistics class on hold too…it’s probably just political reasons! There’s obviously more to this story than Udacity or SJSU want to release.

  8. Joe spoto says . . . | July 27, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    MOOC are great but as a supplement to the traditional classroom environment. Trying to find a replacement for the classroom and the live interaction is never going to be achieved with videos. Where is the exchange of ideas, the building of knowledge as a process of exploration of questioning. There is none. The only method which will stand as a viable alternative to MOOC and pre-recorded videos is LiVE online. This company is running FREE LIVE on-line courses using real instructors to run the courses, no pre-recorded videos http://commsupport.co.uk/free-one-day-course/

  9. Mik Jos says . . . | February 4, 2014 / 6:37 pm

    There is a LOT not being said. First off, the undergrad enrollment at SJSU in those MOOC classes doubled with half being SJSU enrollees and half coming form outside the university. “This spring, Udacity and San Jose State offered three online for-credit math courses for $150 to 100 students per course. Of those students, half were San Jose State students and the other half were un-enrolled students who might have come from high schools or the military.” As some of your commenters pointed out, many of those people outside the university taking these courses (and some inside the university too) may just be checking out the classes. Those outside the university have no real need to “pass” the class, may have takent he class and found they either didn’t want to or just didn’t have the time to give it the effort it demanded and since they have no stake in getting good grades or a degree they just let the class go. They have low or no real committment to the class and thus flunk (but the University still got their money). So there’s your 56% failure rate. So 7.6% of those outside the university complete and pass the class and some of those unside the university (a low number) failed it. What’s the problem? I think this is a knee jerk reaction. Many of those outside the university system may be entertaining the idea of completing unfinished course work to get a degree they fell just short of 15 to 20 years ago, maybe at another university, and would like to fill in the missing credits. SOme may just be interested becaause they like to learn. Some maybe entertaining the notion of getting a college degree but they are already working full time jobs while also juggling a spouse and kids. Folks in the military may be taking the classes, etc. No matter what, it takes committment to pass any college class. As MOOC insider said above, some classes had high pass rates and only a few had low ones and it was those low ones that dragged down the stats. Sounds like those specific courses need to be fixed and also, let’s here what those courses were. Also the article is misleading when it says there are 50,000 taking a course, SJSU (as I quoted above) limited the class size to 100 students at $150 each. I frankly LIKE the idea and would like to see it extended to grad courses as well. College has become ridiculously expensive and, frankly, the degrees aren’t worth the cost. My nephew is 32, is $70,000 in debt and his monthly payments would pay for a house payment and he simply cannot get rid of the loan at his current income level. Sadly, his BA degree as useless in landing him a high paying job that would get rid of the degree. MOOC’s would have allowed him to get his degree without going $70,000 in debt.

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