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MOOCs Rebound at San Jose State


This past January, San Jose State University excitedly announced a partnership with the MOOC start-up Udacity, only to find itself wiping some egg off its face after the first semester of online offerings went poorly, with less than half of the students passing the end-of-semester exam. The university put the program on hold, and MOOC naysayers came out of the woodwork to declare this as proof positive that online courseware had been proven a sham.

But San Jose didn’t give up on the model, trying again with a tweaked program in the summer. This time, it was a success: 83 percent of enrolled students passed a course on statistics, and 73 percent passed an algebra course; both rates are higher than the pass rates for comparable traditional courses. (The pass rate for a remedial math course was lower, at 30 percent, but even this number was higher than before—and pass rates for remedial courses tend to be much lower in general.)

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun and other online-ed supporters are already hailing this as a sign that MOOCs are improving to the point that they can compete with traditional college courses. Information Week spotlights a few of the changes responsible for the improvements:

—Better orientation, particularly for students not otherwise enrolled at SJSU.

—More encouragement along the way, including online tools to help students track their progress and mentors checking in with students more frequently.

—More communication, with student feedback incorporated into changes in the courses. “We’re also sending less email and more messages when students are ‘in class’ online,” according to Junn.

The news isn’t all good. While far more students passed their classes than in the spring offerings, the retention rate was lower, leading some to speculate that some of the improved results were due to failing students simply dropping out of the course before taking the final test. But we should also keep in mind that enrollment for the online courses was far higher than for traditional classroom offerings. The program thus reached many students who would not otherwise have been served.

We’ve been MOOC-boosters from almost the beginning, but we have always expected that, as with any new technology, there would be a period where institutions would have to iron out the inevitable kinks in implementation. That’s what we’re seeing right now in San Jose State and in places like Georgia Tech. SJSU’s experience suggests that the experimentation is finally paying off.

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  • Philopoemen

    This seems to be the common refrain in criticism of MOOCs – that they are not completely perfect. What do people expect? Do MOOCs have to perform flawlessly to be a valuable teaching tool?

    The not-so-subtle implication in that criticism there is that conventional classroom courses are perfect, which is laughable.

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