Learning from our missteps with MOOCs…

Udacity SJSU parntership

A new partnership

The disappointing results of the spring and summer offerings of Udacity courses to traditional and non-traditional students are not surprising given what appears to be “fuzzy”, insufficient preliminary assessment of diversity and scope of learner needs, inadequate time for course building, and unrealistic expectations. The underlying belief of this project seems to have been that better course design, more video and interactivity, more flexible access and lots of online support would be enough to overcome all the learning and life challenges of the targeted students and the realities of the digital and economic divide. Perhaps I am being a bit harsh in my criticism of this initiative but why did they have to select three courses with high failure rates, an online learning environment that would be unfamiliar to students (and faculty?) and then set a tight timeline and shine the spotlight of MOOC-hyped media attention on it? I would say that all the faculty, tutors and Udacity staff deserve praise for the obvious effort they made to support the students and rectify problems.

If you didn’t catch the original announcement in January, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown had asked Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, to partner with SJSU faculty to develop and deliver a series of “for credit” low cost ($150) online courses to any student who had a high speed internet connection. The stated focus was on offering two math classes and one statistics class that had been identified as critical to college success. The early media reports indicated that SJSU was taking this step primarily to respond to the demand for greater access to learning as they had “limited public resources”.

Reviewing some of the original statements from university representatives and Governor Jerry Brown in the media coverage of this initiative, it seems apparent that the “focus” was too broad to achieve the success that was anticipated. The “focus” was on non-traditional and underserved students. “Underserved students” included high school students who wanted college credit, waitlisted students at California community colleges, and members of the armed forces and veterans. “Non-traditional students” were described by Governor Jerry Brown as  “…students whose busy lives don’t fit into the traditional college structure or who need better preparation for college studies.” (Governor Jerry Brown, 2013).  So, just think about the different learning styles, life and technology barriers, prior knowledge and prior experience with online learning that these educators expected to address.

Here are some of the challenges that became evident during the pilot (more may arise as SJSU pauses the pilot and analyses the experiences and data collected):

1.  Two weeks to develop

Due to the timing of the partnership, faculty and Udacity staff had two weeks to develop short, engaging videos and interactive online quizzes and activities (a hallmark of Udacity’s online offerings). Reports indicate faculty needed  400 hours to develop each course.Resulted in clerical errors and some inconsistencies (e.g., two of the three classes had no deadlines initially).

Response:  Clerical errors addressed as they were found. Deadlines were established in two courses and communicated to students as the classes progressed. In terms of lack of time to develop, each time the courses are offered this should be less of an issue. Content can be re-used although it may need adjusting as student responses and outcomes are analysed – one of the positives of these online platforms

2. Lack of understanding of the range of student access to and knowledge of online technologies

Many students didn’t have home access and didn’t know how to log onto the course site or utilize the technologies. Thrun recalled that “..many of the students simply couldn’t get to a computer regularly enough” as no one appears to have planned for the need for computers and connectivity.

Response:  Issued laptops to students, set aside class time to focus on the online course and assigned teachers to make sure they stayed on task (2013, Murphy)Udacity worked with schools to ensure access for pilot students. (2013, Corcoran)

3. Lack of foundational math knowledge

Many of the students lacked basic math knowledge; some were starting from so far back they couldn’t remember how to divide numbers.

Response:  lots of tutorial support – one student cited the help she got at 11:30 pm for a statistic assignment due at 11:59 pm! (2013, Murphy)

4.  Connecting students with online tutors

Many students didn’t know about the online tutors so they couldn’t get the help they needed.

Response:  through outreach – emails, text messages, calls, they were connected.

Here are some of the overall outcomes:

1.  Students reported liking the Udacity course model (and the low cost) to achieve a college credit

2.  Thrun points to a high completion rate 83% but SJSU report apparently says 51% failure rate.

3.  SJSU will take the fall term to assess the results but plans to try again with the Udacity partnership next spring.

4.  Udacity will leave the SJSU MOOC course available (not for credit?) and will continue to work with SJSU to improve student experience.

Stay tuned…experiments continuing. Wonder where we will end up?


Corcoran, B. (2013, July 24) Udacity’s Lessons Learned. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/n/2013-07-24-udacity-s-lessons-learned

Harris, P.L. (2013, January 15). SJSU and Udacity Parntership, SJSU Today, Retrieved from http://blogs.sjsu.edu/today/2013/sjsu-and-udacity-partnership/

Murphy, K. (2013, June 2). San Jose State’s online college course experiment reveals hidden costs. Mercury News. Retrieved from http://www.mercurynews.com/education/ci_23366281/online-college-course-experiment-reveals-hidden-costs?source=pkg

Rivard, R. (2013, July 19). Udacity project on ‘pause’. InsideHigherEd. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/18/citing-disappointing-student-outcomes-san-jose-state-pauses-work-udacity


About Cloudsyl

Now a mid-Island observer of the Cloud
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