San Jose State’s big experiment with massive online courses fails massively

Eric Owens | Editor

Massive open online courses – MOOCs – have been scheduled to take the education world by storm for the last couple years. The revolution has been very slow-going thus far, though. Fits and starts have been frequent.

Take the case of San Jose State University. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Silicon Valley school has suspended a much-ballyhooed partnership with privately-held MOOC giant Udacity designed to offer very cheap, for-credit online courses. The collaboration fizzled primarily because over half of all enrolled students failed the classes.

San Jose State’s MOOC experiment was teeming with problems. For example, a large number of students participating in the online courses didn’t have their own computers—or even access to a computer. These participants – students at a college prep academy called Oakland Military Institute – were enrolled for three weeks before program mentors became aware of the issue.

More broadly, students in traditional classes performed significantly better than students in the Udacity’s MOOCs.

Reasons other than the course delivery method could explain the disparity. For example, San Jose State students made up fewer than half of the students in the MOOCs. A big percentage of MOOC students represented high schools in local low-income communities.

Pass rates varied by class. In three spring math courses — remedial math, college algebra and elementary statistics — rates ranged from 20 percent to 44 percent  On the bright side, over 80 percent of the students who participated completed the courses. (It’s not clear how completion was defined or policed.)

In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been an aggressive proponent of online education at the state’s public universities, announced the partnership between San Jose State and Udacity.

Each class cost just $150 (with no state or federal financial aid available).

The National Science Foundation provided a grant for the courses.

“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,” San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn told the L.A. Times.

“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,” she added. “Maybe some students didn’t take it quite seriously.”

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