In announcing San Jose State University’s contract with the online course developer Udacity to offer three innovative math classes, Gov. Jerry Brown bristled at a press conference Tuesday when the first question from the media was, “How much would they cost?”
After comparing technology to poetry and quoting from Robert Frost in his remarks, the governor was disappointed that the reporter had left the intellectual sphere so quickly to delve into the mundane.
However, cost is a major reason that the governor is promoting the agreement between Udacity and San Jose State. He has been touting using technology as a way to keep tuition costs down and to offer high-demand courses to more students, making it easier for them to graduate earlier and reducing the need for student loans. His current budget proposal has set aside $16.9 million for the community colleges to use technology for this purpose.
The three new math courses offered through Udacity – Developmental Math (or Visualizing Algebra), College Algebra and Elementary Statistics – will cost students just $150 each. A normal California State University course is about $450, with the state subsidizing another $450.
In the case of San Jose State Plus, the name for the online program, the university got the $45,000 to pay for its faculty’s participation in the courses from Extended Learning, a San Jose State program that makes money each year. A grant from the National Science Foundation will pay for the evaluation of the pilot program.
Part of the reason for the low price is that Udacity is not making a profit, according to Sebastian Thrun, the Palo Alto-based company’s CEO and co-founder, who is also a computer science professor at Stanford University and a Google Fellow who helped develop the self-driving car.
Brown also lauded Udacity for creating courses that will help the students most likely to struggle in college because of poor academic preparation. The courses rely on everyday examples to explain theoretical concepts. An instructor’s hand holding a knife cuts a candy bar to teach fractions, or a teacher uses Legos to explain statistical data. The three courses will be offered primarily to San Jose State students who have had difficulty with math. The courses will also be available to community college and high school students, with about 100 students in each class participating in the pilot program.
Brown sees the contract between San Jose State and Udacity, signed with fanfare on campus in San Jose, as an exciting moment in the effort to combat dismal graduation rates from the state’s colleges and universities. He noted that only 16 percent of students at the California State University system graduate in four years.
In addition, “millions of people aren’t going to college, countless kids are dropping out of high school,” Gov. Brown said. “What is the cost of failure?” he asked. “Online [education] is a part of that solution.”
Brown added that investing in new approaches to solve problems is worth it even if you fail. “If you know where you’re going, you’re dead,” he said. “Being alive is not knowing where you’re going to be.” The state is spending billions on education, he said. “We need better results not only for the students themselves, but for the state itself.”
Online courses, such as Udacity’s, can be taken at a student’s own pace and in his own time. San Jose State instructors worked with Udacity to develop the courses and will be available online to help students who are having problems with the concepts. Instructors will be proactive, contacting a student who is not following through with a course. Students also interact with each other through online chatting.
Normally these courses are “taught in a lecture hall with 250 students,” said Susan McClory, director of Developmental Studies at San Jose State who will be co-teaching the Visualizing Algebra class. “With so many students, you just get through it.” There’s no time for cutting candy bars or fiddling with Legos.
Although McClory has had fun creating the course, which is based on her textbook, she admits the process has been tedious, with a lot of going back and forth with Udacity developers. She also doesn’t see the course as really finished. Feedback from the pilot will be incorporated into newer versions. Most of the course features the left hand of Chris Saden, a former teacher from Oakland who works with Udacity. There are no teachers talking at students in the video.
Another enthusiastic supporter of Udacity’s approach to teaching is Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District, who attended the press conference. He is proposing to his board that they allow Udacity to develop English and math placement tests that will include diagnostic tools that will show students where their knowledge is lacking. They can then take Udacity modules in those areas to bone up for the placement test. For example, a student might remember Venn diagrams but forget how to do quadratic equations. That student would take the quadratic equation module to refresh his memory before taking the placement test in math.
Currently, Galatolo said, there is a 70 percent failure rate for placement exams systemwide. He expects that would flip to 30 percent if Udacity modules were used because for most students it is forgetfulness, not incompetence, that causes them to fail. The college could then focus on the 30 percent who need remedial work, which could be done at a much faster pace with Udacity, he said. Students, many of whom are single, working parents, could take remedial classes while their children are sleeping in the evenings. Currently, he said, students need to take courses on a campus one semester at a time. Two years can go by, and they still have no college credit. In the meantime, their neighbors, who have eschewed college, are working and making money. Those students drop out.
Udacity is a “way of busting through the barrier we’ve built for them,” Galatolo said.
He is hoping that all 112 community colleges will adopt Udacity’s tests and modules. The company, he said, is open to offering the tests to the colleges for free because it would be a way to introduce thousands of students to Udacity’s classes.
In a typical 50-minute course, an instructor talks at you, Galatolo said. Udacity course developers recognize that “the brain gets bored after four minutes – the mind just disappears.” Udacity courses “rapidly engage you,” he added. For example, a video teaching geometry will show a building and ask the student to determine the height. The video then explains how to do it through triangulation. The student forms a triangle and solves the equation based on a geometric theorem. It all takes four or five minutes. Then the video asks questions to see if the student understands. If the student answers the questions correctly, the video then moves on to the next concept.
The approach is “very, very clever, “ Galatolo said. Or as Robert Frost would put it, concepts are “unfolded by surprise.”