EDITORIAL: It's too early to call CSU online classes a failure

July 30, 2013 

With the first semester of an experiment in online education over in mid-May and the second semester's courses in progress until Aug. 9, headlines across the country pronounced the experiment a failure.

"San Jose State's big experiment with massive online courses fails massively"; "San Jose State University-Udacity experiment with online-only courses fizzles"; "After Weak Results, San Jose State Severs Udacity Partnership."

This rush to judgment was based on misunderstanding about the design of the pilot project and was misguided. This project deserves a chance.

As Gov. Jerry Brown said at the announcement of the experiment in January, California has three major challenges to confront. Only 16% of California State University students graduate in four years. Millions of young people with college aptitude aren't going to college. Even if they get to college, they have to take remedial English or math or repeat courses.

So Brown promoted the pilot project partnering San Jose State University faculty with the Palo Alto-based technology startup Udacity. The aim was to create online versions of classes that normally have high failure rates and prove to be roadblocks for students trying to move through college -- entry-level math, college algebra and elementary statistics.

The project targeted San Jose State students who had failed remedial courses, high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds and community college students on SJSU wait lists for admission or who had failed placement exams.

The first semester certainly had major bumps. While 83% of the students stuck with courses to the end, only a small proportion passed.

In remedial math, all of the San Jose State students already failed traditional face-to-face course once; 29% of them passed the online version. Only 12% of the non-SJSU students passed.

In college algebra, 44% of the SJSU students passed; only 12% of non-SJSU students.

In Intro Statistics, 51% of SJSU students and 45% of non-SJSU students passed.

This is a wake-up call to make adjustments, not a reason to jettison the project.

San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn makes that clear, telling The Sacramento Bee's editorial board: "We are not walking away from the data and the partnership." The plan is to analyze the data, make adjustments and offer courses in spring 2014.

Udacity's Sebastian Thrun made it clear in January that he believes Massive Open Online Courses are "not a viable model of education."

On the contrary, he said, it's important to bring along students who need extra attention and help, and make the professor central to that process. That came through loud and clear in the first semester.

Reaching low-income, first-generation college-goers through online courses has promise. But it will not be an overnight miracle to long-standing education challenges.

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