L.A. Now

Pass rates up for online classes at San Jose State

Students who took online classes in a summer program at San Jose State University performed better than those who took the same online classes in the spring, a result that is likely to provide a boost to a highly touted but problem-plagued collaboration between the campus and an online provider.

In new results released Wednesday, 83% of summer students in elementary statistics earned a C or better compared with 50.5% of those in the spring; and 72.6% of summer college algebra students made the grade compared with 25.4% of those in the spring.

The pass rates for remedial math improved somewhat, reaching nearly 30% for summer students compared with 24% for those in the spring.

Students in two new summer classes also fared well, with 67% earning a C or better in general psychology and 70% achieving that level in computer programming.

Officials said they were encouraged by the developments, especially after the disappointing spring results raised a host of critical questions about the highly watched project with Udacity, a Mountain View-based online course provider. Each of the for-credit classes cost $150 with no state or federal support.

For right or wrong, online education is seen by many as a money-saver that will allow greater access to California's public colleges and universities.

Many observers of the San Jose effort suggested that pressure from such supporters as Gov. Jerry Brown resulted in a hastily assembled project and unprepared students. In addition, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose foundation is helping to fund the project, was intent on including math classes.

Udacity and the San Jose campus announced jointly in July that they were pulling the classes for the fall to fine-tune many aspects of the project.

Critics were ready to declare the online experiment a failure too early and did not understand how innovation works, said Udacity co-founder and Chief Executive Sebastian Thrun.

"The way these new ideas work is that it takes multiple iterations before you get there," Thrun said in an interview. "It's not perfect and we have a lot to learn, but I'm happy about it."

A major factor in the differing results was the makeup of the students themselves, Thrun said. Less than half of the spring group was enrolled in San Jose State; many taking the classes were local high school students from low-income areas. Of the 2,091 students who enrolled in summer classes, 71% were from other states or foreign countries and about 11% were enrolled in one of Cal State's 23 campuses.

More students dropped out of the summer classes than the spring after officials relaxed the rules for withdrawing. The overall retention rate dropped to about 60% for the summer classes compared with 83% for the spring.

San Jose State instructors also retooled their approach for summer students, being more upfront about expectations and doing more to engage students, said Provost Ellen Junn.

Cay Horstmann, a computer science professor who designed the introduction to programming course, said the online format was a good fit for the class, which is always in demand and must turn away students.

However, he said, about 15,000 other students who didn't pay or receive credit participated on the Udacity platform, which clogged up the discussion board for the enrolled students.

Further, he said that he and his colleagues sometimes had to resist attempts by Udacity to overly simplify course material and hand out answers so that students wouldn't get frustrated.

The final grades mirrored those of students on campus, he said.

"It was a great experience and I would hope it would continue," said Horstmann.

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