Online courses fail the mid-term at San Jose State, but what about the final?

San Jose State University is about two semesters into an experiment with MOOCs -- also known as massive online open courses. The plan was to increase access to education by offering cheap online courses for university credit ($150 per course, free if you aren’t taking them for credit).

Then came the preliminary data, and the grades weren’t good:

Intro Statistics: 49 percent of San Jose students taking the class failed, as did 55 percent of non SJSU students. 

Remedial math: 71 percent of the SJSU students failed. 88 percent of non SJSU students failed.

College Algebra: 56 percent of SJSU students failed, as did 88 percent of non-SJSU students.

“It’s not necessarily a failure at all,” says Provost Ellen Junn. She says the remedial math course was made up of students who had already failed it once, and up to half of the students in other courses were from economically disadvantaged high schools. There are very little data on how to adapt MOOCs to this population, so “part of our initiative was to study would this methodology help student success or not.”

According to Udacity, the company that partnered with San Jose State to put on the courses, the failure rates of the San Jose students in the online math course was  lower than the failure rate of San Jose students who took remedial math in a classroom. Even so, nearly three-quarters of the online students failed.

One problem, Junn says, is that may of the high school students didn’t have access to Internet at home and fell behind. Other students complained they had difficulty keeping up because they were also working full time.

Michael Horn heads the Christensen Institute, which supports innovation in education. He says the jury is still out on MOOCs, but says the type of experimentation taking place at San Jose -- despite it’s early results -- will be necessary to find ways to adapt the courses to students.

“What we’re learning very clearly is that simply because something’s on an online platform doesn’t make education better.”

Conversely, students need to adapt to MOOCs. Ron Rogers heads the psych department at San Jose and helped develop the statistics course. While online courses “are a work in progress,”  he says by nature “they are a slightly different beast, and students may not be aware of that.”

Rogers says many students were unprepared for college level work and didn’t know how to manage their time. His first assignment for the summer semester was to have students develop a time management schedule, and to impress upon them the scheduling and discipline requirements. 

Another factor is class size, he says. Classes are larger for the summer for most MOOC subjects, and two new courses were added.

“I think we’ve reached a critical mass of students this semester, that’s allowing them to self-organize into study groups online,” he says. 

The school will be working on these things while the MOOC program is on hold, and full data, due in August, will flesh out how round two of San Jose’s MOOCs fared. 

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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