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Scaling Back in San Jose

December 18, 2013

San Jose State University has all but ended its experiment to offer low-cost, high-quality online education in partnership with the massive open online course provider Udacity after a year of disappointing results and growing dismay among faculty members.

The university will next spring offer three of the five courses that it created in participation with Udacity -- elementary statistics, introduction to programming and general psychology -- but the courses will be absorbed into the regular framework of the institution. Asked if the MOOC provider will play a part in next semester’s course offerings, Patricia Lopes Harris, a university spokeswoman, said “Good question for Udacity.”

“Udacity has made the content open and free to faculty members, and will receive no payments or revenue from this arrangement,” according to a university blog post.

The spring semester courses will be available to all students in the California State University System. San Jose State has reserved half of the seats in the statistics and programming courses for its own students. The courses will still be hosted on Udacity, but students will use Canvas, a learning management system created by Instructure, to communicate with instructors and take exams, said Clarissa Shen, Udacity's vice president of strategic business and marketing. The MOOC provider will also collect data about how students engage with the courses. "So, no, not walking away," Shen said in an email.

The courses will cost as much as any other course at San Jose State. Free versions of the five courses will also be available on Udacity’s website, where students can complete them for certificates.

“This is very much the end of the San Jose State-Udacity partnership for this pilot, and it’s really an attempt -- in my opinion -- to frame it in a positive light,” said Phil Hill, a higher education consultant. “This is an attempt to do a very nice eulogy for an event that wasn’t really pretty as it was happening.”

The project, known as SJSU Plus, has been on “pause” since this summer after its three spring semester courses posted pass rates between 23.8 and 50.5 percent -- much lower than their on-campus equivalents. Although the rates rebounded over the summer, those sessions featured a vastly different student population, including some students with doctoral degrees. In comparison, the spring pilot included more at-risk students. After a National Science Foundation-backed study was published without fanfare in September, buzz about the project died down.

The results of SJSU Plus have even caused Udacity to shift its focus to corporate training. Speaking to Fast Company, the Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun said the disadvantaged students targeted by the pilot proved a mismatch for online education. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit,” he said.

Thrun is away on vacation and did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, faculty members at San Jose State have urged an outside review of the institution’s governance, and Ellen Junn, provost and vice president of academic affairs, has resigned to become provost of Cal State’s Dominguez Hills campus. Junn declined to comment for this article. She previously described the fall hiatus as the university “taking a breather this fall to set the stage for student success in the future.”

Tuesday’s announcement, which Harris described as a "group decision," shows how the project has fallen out of favor with the state’s political and higher education establishments. At its launch in January, the project brought together Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, California Governor Jerry Brown and Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University System. Eleven months later, White has publicly alluded to the failure of the Udacity experiment, and Brown did not return a request for comment.

Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, said the university’s decision did not come as a surprise.

“It’s almost anticlimactic, given where they started out in January,” Taiz said. “Here we are a year later, and it’s fizzling out like a firecracker.”

 

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