Monday, July 22, 2013

San Jose State Suspends Udacity Experiment

News this weekend that San Jose State in California has suspended its experiment with Udacity offering low-level courses for pay and college credit and requirements:,0,4160941.story

Key point: "Initial findings suggest that students in Udacity courses performed poorly compared with students in traditional classes." Note that this is broadly in line with the prediction I made here several weeks ago, in the post titled Online Remedial Courses Considered Harmful, something that I considered to be a fairly easy and obvious call. I asked the question, "We'll see how quickly MOOCs such as UDacity, and those partnering, paying, and linking their reputation with them, re-learn this lesson", and I'd have to say that this turnaround was faster than I would have guessed at San Jose State. Perhaps they will agree with the earlier experiment at the Philadelphia school where it was concluded, "The failure rates were so high that it seemed almost unethical to offer the option" (see link to my earlier post above).

The last paragraph of today's news story reiterates my own views, which I've written about here on numerous occasions: "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."

A few other points: "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." Now, it would be much better if this success rate were broken down individually for each of these several classes. I might guess that the 20% success rate is specifically for the remedial math course? That does seem marginally lower than most remedial courses where the success rate seems to be around one-quarter or one-third.

Also, the article says, "In a somewhat more promising outcome, 83% of students completed the classes." This seems unsurprising, given that students are paying $150 out-of-pocket for the course. This completion (but mostly failing) rate is about in line with the remedial courses that I teach, where students are similarly paying, meeting an absolute requirement by the  college, and have no real academic penalty for failing (the course grade does not affect GPA, for example).

Perhaps charitably we might say that the $150 expense level is lower than standard college teaching costs, and perhaps someone might think it's a reasonable return on investment, even granted a lower success rate (although maybe not when accounting for student time spent). And we might also be suspicious of (a) whether this is the actual Udacity expense, or if they're operating at a loss to establish the market, and (b) the quality of the assessment at the end, when there's a clear incentive to make it easy to pass and the Udacity statistics final I've seen in the past was almost comically trivial.

Supposedly this suspension is for re-tooling and analysis of possible improvements. "The courses will be offered again next spring, [San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn] said." We shall see.


  1. Udacity - ugh. Bane of my existence. The fact that anyone has even been offering these things for real college credit in the first place is proof that the folks making the decisions don't really have a good grasp on what it is we do on the instructional side. Who knew that it was so important to have a professor who can answer questions and who can emphasize or de-emphasize different content on the fly in response to student performance? Funny how everyone who actually teaches for a living called that one right out of the gate.