San Jose State online experiment sees better results

Students who took online classes in a summer program at San Jose State University performed better than those who took the same 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; while 72.6% of summer college algebra students made the grade compared to 25.4% of those in the spring.

The pass rates for remedial math improved somewhat, reaching nearly 30% for summer students compared to 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. 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 suggested that pressure from supporters like Gov. Jerry Brown resulted in a hastily assembled project and unprepared students. In addition, Bill Gates, whose foundation is helping to fund the project, was intent on including math classes.

Udacity, a Silicon Valley education group, 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, however, 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. “I’m quite happy to be at a point where I believe we have a good basis. It’s not perfect and we have a lot to learn, but I’m happy about it.”

A big factor in the differing results was the make-up of the students themselves, Thrun said. Less than half of the spring group was enrolled in San Jose State; many were local high school students from low-income areas.

Of the 2,091 students who enrolled in summer classes, by comparison, 71% were from other states or foreign countries and only about 11% were enrolled in one of Cal State’s 23 campuses.


In another difference, the overall retention rate dropped to about 60% for the summer classes compared to 83% for the spring. Officials decided to relax the rules for dropping classes. Those who remained tended to be more motivated.

San Jose State instructors also retooled many details for summer students, being more upfront about what to expect and doing more to engage students, said Provost Ellen Junn.

The statistics and psychology classes, for example, set up live Google chats and students established Facebook pages to help each other, Junn said.

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


About 800 intially enrolled; 500 remained until the end. However, about 15,000 others who did not pay or receive credit participated on the Udacity platform, which clogged up the discussion board for the enrolled students, he said.

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,” Horstmann said.


Officials said the courses will be offered again next spring. One new innovation may to be allow students to customize their schedule, Junn said.

She and Thrun conceded that questions still remain about the degree to which the project can be expanded, given the level of support and monitoring needed by students and whether remedial math is suited to an online format.

“We want to focus even more on what we can do to make the experience better,” Junn said. “Even if only a small number are succeeding and many are not, it doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Harriet Kansiime took the online remedial class this summer so that she’d be eligible for college-level algebra. The San Jose State freshman passed and didn’t have to waste tuition on a non-credit remedial course.


The online class also saved her the trouble of traveling to campus from her San Pablo home.

“I loved the class and I think I was better off online than with a lecture class, “ said Kansiime, 18. “I could study on my own and watch the interactive videos with the instructors giving you all the steps. And there was a forum run by students which helped me because I don’t have anyone at home like a sister in college to help me out. I was able to share ideas with students from all over the world.”


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