San Jose State suspends collaboration with online provider

San Jose State University is suspending a highly touted collaboration with online provider Udacity to offer low-cost, for-credit online courses after finding that more than half of the students failed to pass the classes, officials said Thursday.

Preliminary results from a spring pilot project found student pass rates of 20% to 44% in remedial math, college-level algebra and elementary statistics courses. In a somewhat more promising outcome, 83% of students completed the classes.

The San Jose State experiment with online education was being closely watched by other universities as they begin to step farther into the virtual classroom.

Udacity, a private Silicon Valley education group, and San Jose State announced jointly that they have agreed to pull the courses this fall to examine results in greater detail and fine-tune many aspects of the project.

“There are many complex factors that relate to student performance, and we’re trying to study the factors that help or hinder students in this environment,” said San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn.


The courses were initially limited to 100 students. The project received a grant from the National Science Foundation to evaluate student outcomes.

The program was expanded this summer with two new courses: computer science and introduction to psychology. Each of the classes costs $150, with no state or federal support.

Udacity co-founder and chief executive Sebastian Thrun could not be reached for comment.

A statement released by San Jose and Udacity outlined some areas of study:

“The improvements we are considering include developing introductory materials that will help students prepare for and engage in college-level online classes. We would also like to look at the impact of the frequency of quizzes for grades and other similar incentives to help students move through the material in a timely manner. Another focus will be to explore opportunities to move to open-registration, self-paced classes with student-set deadlines.”

Junn said data are still being analyzed and that a full report would be available in early August.

Initial findings suggest that students in Udacity courses performed poorly compared with students in traditional classes. Fewer than half of the Udacity students were enrolled in San Jose State; many were high school students from low-income communities.

A large group were enrolled in the Oakland Military Institute, a college prep academy. Many of them didn’t have access to a computer — a fact that course mentors didn’t learn about until three weeks into the semester, Junn said.

She acknowledged that educators did a poor job of explaining upfront what students should expect.

“We learned that we could have prepared them better about what it means to take an online course and that this is a university course with real faculty teaching for university credit,” Junn said. “Maybe some students didn’t take it quite seriously.”

Students in the summer courses received more orientation, and anecdotal evidence suggests their performance is better. Junn said pulling the courses for the fall term was a good time to “take a breather” as well as consult faculty who have expressed concerns about the direction of online education. The courses will be offered again next spring, she said.

The Udacity/San Jose State project was announced in January with much fanfare by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been pushing the state’s public universities to aggressively pursue online education.

So-called massive open online courses — known as MOOCs — have been gaining in popularity, despite dropout rates of about 90%.

There has been considerable resistance, however, with faculty and others questioning the effectiveness of online courses. Philosophy professors at San Jose State, for example, refused to use materials from a course offered by another online provider, edX, that was developed by a Harvard instructor.

The decision to suspend the Udacity project is prudent, said Steven Filling, vice chairman of the statewide Academic Senate.

“It’s a good idea to say, let’s stop and look at this experiment to see how we can do it better,” said Filling, a Cal State Stanislaus accounting professor. “Frankly, it seems like the blush is off the rose with respect to MOOCs. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll find a way to do things online with some kind of hybrid that works best.”

Educators elsewhere have said the purely online courses aren’t a good fit for remedial students who may lack the self-discipline, motivation and even technical savvy to pass the classes. They say these students may benefit from more one-on-one attention from instructors.