Udacity says pass rates rising in SJSU MOOC experiment

When San Jose State University partnered with massive open online course provider Udacity to provide low cost MOOCs for credit, it was heralded as a “game changer” by California’s governor.

Sebastian Thrun

One semester later, the initiative was suddenly “paused” after as much as 75 percent of students were failing some of the courses. Now, SJSU Plus, as the program is called, is making an apparent comeback less than two months after it stalled.

Pass rates for the courses sharply increased during the summer semester’s attempt, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun announced in a blog post, with some rates even surpassing those of their on-campus counterparts.

“To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works,” Thrun said. “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation.”

In SJSU Plus’ elementary statistics course, the pass rate rose from 50.5 percent to 83 percent.

The college algebra course saw its percentage of students who passed jump from a quarter to nearly three quarters. The entry level math course improved the least, with a pass rate of 29.9 percent up from the spring’s 23.8.

Two new Udacity courses were offered in the summer. A general psychology course had a pass rate of 67.3 percent and an intro to programming course had a success rate of 70.4 percent. 2,091 students enrolled in the courses.

See Page 2 for what changes Udacity and San Jose State University made to SJSU Plus this time around.

These additional courses were not the only changes Udacity and San Jose State made to the pilot, Thrun said.

Using data gleaned from the spring, they worked on improving the course content. Hints were added to difficult problems and the number of support staff was increased for helping out with online discussions.

There were differences in demographics, too. While about half of the students who took the spring courses were high school students, they only accounted for 15 percent of users this time around.

Still, Thrun said, SJSU and Udacity remain focused on helping these kinds of students learn and get a leg up.

“[A] way to achieve high pass rates is to be highly selective in the student admissions process,” Thrun said. “Elite private institutions are masters at picking the very best students, and consequently their graduation rates are amazing. We wanted this program to be the opposite.”

There hasn’t been hasn’t been any official word from San Jose State regarding specific details of the partnership as it moves forward, but Thrun admitted that the program still needs some improvement.

Echoing similar statements he made in January, he said it’s “important to acknowledge that we are entering uncharted territory” — that it’s still just an experiment.

“We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement,” Thrun said. “And we know from our data that there is much more to be done.”

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