San Jose State, Udacity online course experiment posts higher summer grades

August 29, 2013

Summer was a better season than spring for a much-touted online course partnership between San Jose State University and online course provider Udacity, according to a status update on the program released this week.

Participants in online courses taken over the summer did better than those who took similar courses in the spring – when disappointing test results prompted the university to put the partnership on hold for the upcoming fall semester while they reviewed ways to make it more effective.

The university released updated information Wednesday showing that 83 percent of students in a summer course in elementary statistics earned a C or better, versus 51 percent of students who did so in the spring. In college-level algebra, 73 percent of summer students earned a C or better, while only a quarter of spring students earned that mark; in remedial math, 30 percent of summer students earned the passing grade or better, compared to 24 percent in the spring.

University officials and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun said they made a number of adjustments to the program based on student feedback, including checking in with students more often and communicating with them more frequently while they are signed into their courses, rather than through email.

The make-up of the students taking summer courses also was different, Thrun noted. “While in the spring, we actively sought out underserved high schools from low-income areas in California, this time we simply opened up enrollment to anyone,” he wrote. “As predicted, with 2,091 students who enrolled, we mainly reached students who would not ordinarily attend college. Only 11 percent of the summer students who took the for-credit courses from SJSU were matriculated students in one of the California State Universities; 71 percent of our students came from out of state or foreign countries. And while the total number of high school students went up, their proportion in the total student body went down.”

Only about 60 percent of summer students finished their courses, compared to about 83 percent who finished the programs in the spring, but university officials attributed the decline to a change giving students more flexibility to drop courses.

The courses continue to be refined, SJSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ellen Junn said in a statement, but the university intends to resume the program in January. Gov. Jerry Brown lauded the partnership when it was launched earlier this year, saying it was a way to ensure access to high-demand courses and keep costs down.

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