San Jose State will scale back online collaboration

San Jose State University is scaling back it's joint online education effort with Udacity.
(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

San Jose State University is assuming control of, and scaling back on, an online initiative with education provider Udacity, officials said Tuesday, putting in question a collaboration that once symbolized the brave new face of online learning.

Instead of five for-credit courses open for a fee to anyone, this spring the university will offer three online classes -- elementary statistics, introduction to programming and general psychology -- that will be open only to students enrolled at San Jose State or the other 22 Cal State campuses.

The classes will be offered through the campus online portal rather than Udacity’s online platform, and fees will be covered by regular tuition. In addition, the campus will hire and train its own teaching assistants to help students rather than use Udacity’s support services.


While not confirming an end to the highly touted but problematic experiment, campus officials acknowledged that Udacity will no longer have direct involvement with its online program.

It was also uncertain whether the courses would be offered beyond the spring semester.

“We’re going to need time to figure out how we’re going to move forward,” said spokeswoman Pat Lopes Harris.

San Jose State President Mohammad Qayoumi was not available for comment.

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 as a way to save costs and expand access to tens of thousands of underserved students.

Initial offerings of remedial math, college-level algebra and elementary statistics at $150 per course -- with no state or federal support -- were expanded in the summer to include the psychology and computer classes.

But limited Internet experience and technical glitches hampered many students, especially those in remedial classes, which had high failure rates. Although students who took the summer classes performed better, the project was put on hold this fall to make improvements.

One problem that apparently is unresolvable is Udacity’s interest in allowing some students to complete work more quickly and others to take more time, Harris said.

“Udacity continues to discuss the possibility of asynchronicity rather than offering classes according to a traditional academic calendar,” she said, “and that’s a tough situation for San Jose State to address because we are entirely set up on the semester system.”

All five classes remain available for students on a non-credit bases on Udacity’s website.

“We are supporting them with three courses that are being offered for college credit for SJSU and CSU students,” said Udacity spokeswoman Clarissa Shen. “It is simply a different offering and collaboration.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has said recently that he wants to focus the for-profit, venture capital-funded group more on job training.

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

But the Udacity/San Jose State collaboration and other well-publicized efforts have drawn considerable resistance from faculty and others who question the effectiveness -- academic and cost-wise -- of online courses.

“This reflects a reality check ... and I hope it’s a good sign of stepping back from the hype and looking at what pursuits like this offer to the university,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Assn.

Taiz said she initially thought the San Jose State project offered promise, but “I think if we can put it into perspective, online education is not the silver bullet, not the panacea that’s going to answer the problem of funding higher education.”


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