The ever-ballooning field of online education took a big hit this summer when news broke that more than half of the students who took Udacity's online courses at San Jose State University this spring failed the class. The poor results inspired the college to temporarily suspend its partnership with Udacity for the fall semester.
Now, the Palo Alto-based company, which is one of many providers of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, is making a comeback.
Udacity has just released the pass rates from its summer program at San Jose State, and the results are substantially more promising. Pass rates were up across the board, and in some classes, including Elementary Statistics and College Algebra, they even surpassed pass rates for on-campus students. Here's how they stacked up:
- Elementary Statistics: Spring pass rate: 50.5 percent; summer pass rate: 83 percent; on-campus pass rate: 76.3 percent
- College Algebra: Spring pass rate: 25.4 percent; summer pass rate: 72.6 percent; on-campus pass rate: 64.7 percent
- Entry Level Math: Spring pass rate: 23.8 percent; summer pass rate: 29.8 percent; on-campus pass rate: 45.5 percent
- General Psychology (not offered in the Spring): Summer pass rate: 67.3 percent; on-campus pass rate: 83 percent
- Intro to Programming (not offered in the Spring): Summer pass rate: 70.4 percent; on-campus pass rate: 67.6 percent
According to Udacity co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun, the company changed a number of pieces of its strategy to improve pass rates this time around. For starters, Udacity re-recorded some of its least successful course videos. The company also changed the pacing of the courses, so students knew ahead of time when they were falling behind, and added more staff to support students online.
Though he's pleased with the results, Thrun recently told me by phone, "We're not perfect yet. There are a lot of improvements we can make, but invention is a process. You have to work really hard, look at data, and improve to get better and better and better."
Another big change this time around is the fact that for the pilot program this spring, Udacity made a concerted effort to recruit students from underserved high schools in California. After all, Thrun says, the purpose of MOOCs is not to replace a college education for people who have access to one, but to expand access to education to people don't. "A lot of people say, 'How does this compare to on campus?' but I think that's the wrong question," Thrun says. "The question is, 'How does it compare to nothing?'"
The summer session, however, which was open to the public, primarily consisted of students who already had some sort of post-secondary degree. This switch does call into question just how well MOOC providers like Udacity are able to serve communities that have little to no access to a college education. In a recent speech on affordability in higher education, President Obama referenced Udacity's upcoming partnership with Georgia Tech University, which, beginning this January, will offer a Master's in Computer Science for $7,000. President Obama listed this as one example of how universities are embracing "innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st century economy and maintain a high level of quality without breaking the bank."
While Thrun commends President Obama for encouraging technological innovation in education, he says the San Jose experiment has taught him that MOOC providers like Udacity, Coursera, and edX still have a long way to go before they're a viable substitute for a traditional college degree.
"I believe Obama is really after creative new solutions, and I'm extremely hopeful that we can bring a hardcore education to people who have no access whatsoever, but that doesn't mean we won't fail a lot," Thrun says. "We have to be humble. It's a serious topic. It's not going to be solved overnight. We have to be honest about the fact that we're experimenting, and we haven't solved the problem, but we're making progress."