Innovative online developer to broaden college partnership

April 19, 2013

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The marriage of innovative online course developer Udacity and San Jose State University is going so well that the partners are offering for-credit summer classes to 10 times as many students per course.

“So far, so good,” said spokesperson Clarissa Shen, saying that the summer classes are considered an extension of the spring pilot, which offered three math classes, including Statistics. Based on the outcome of the summer program, Silicon Valley-based Udacity and San Jose State will decide in the fall whether to make the courses part of the university’s regular offerings. Udacity and the university chose courses that are in high demand, with wait lists, and feedback from students has been positive, Shen said.

“Forty percent of the students who responded to a survey said Udacity was their only option to take the course,” she said. “We’re reaching an underserved market.”

Sebastian Thrun, a research professor of computer science at Stanford and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is one of the instructors of the Udacity statistics course.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who attended the initial launch of the partnership in January, has touted using technology as a way to keep tuition costs down and offer high-demand courses to 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 to develop online courses.

Critics of online courses point to high dropout rates, often as high as 95 percent. Udacity, which started small with only 100 students per course, has had more success, Shen said. She pointed to Udacity’s Statistics course, which has retained 85 percent of its students through midterm exams. Most of the dropouts occurred early on, she said.

This summer Udacity will add Introduction to Programming and Introduction to Psychology to its three math classes. The price will remain at $150 for the credit courses that are accepted by the California State University system and most major U.S. universities, according to Shen. The normal cost of a CSU course is about $450, with the state subsidizing another $450.

However, the summer courses will be offered to 1,000 students instead of 100. Unlike many online courses, faculty at Udacity and San Jose State University provide regular feedback to the students, quickly answering their questions. In the first three math courses in the spring pilot, the faculty realized early on that they needed to do much more direct outreach to students than simple online chats, as they noticed that some students were not keeping up. They started by emailing students, but that turned out to not be effective. Next they sent text messages, which fared better. In cases where the student was really lagging, the instructor would phone the student and set progress goals.

Katie Kormanik, who works for Udacity and, with San Jose State professors, teaches the Statistics course, said right now it is easy to keep up with student questions because she doesn’t get that many. “There will definitely be bumps in the road with more students because there will be many more questions,” she said.

The university professors and Udacity instructors make the lesson plans and also review the exam answers to be sure the automatic grading system is accurate. “That’s a potential problem when the course scales,” Kormanik said. “This summer is a big step.”

Shen said Udacity is open to offering the courses throughout the CSU system, but only if they can have similar agreements with other campuses as they have with San Jose State.

“We believe in high quality and working closely with the university partners,” she said. “We are taking a slower approach to that.”

Shen also expects to be able to scale the course so that the tuition costs can remain low. Currently the San Jose State instructor salaries are being paid through university funds. “We believe strongly that accessibility is tied to affordability,” she said.

Registration for the courses opened on April 16. Students who do not go to San Jose State can register through

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