Editorial: Online classes show promise, despite stumble

Published: Sunday, Jul. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

With the first semester of an experiment in online education over in mid-May and the second semester's courses in progress until Aug. 9, headlines across the country already pronounced the experiment a failure.

"San Jose State's big experiment with massive online courses fails massively"; "San Jose State University-Udacity experiment with online-only courses fizzles"; "After Weak Results, San Jose State Severs Udacity Partnership."

This rush to judgment was based on basic misunderstanding about the design of the pilot project and was deeply misguided. This project still deserves a chance.

As Gov. Jerry Brown said at the announcement of the experiment in January, California has three major challenges to confront. Only 16 percent of California State University students graduate in four years. Millions of young people with college aptitude aren't going to college. Even if they get to college, they have to take remedial English or math or repeat courses.

So Brown personally promoted the pilot project partnering San Jose State University faculty with the Palo Alto-based technology startup company Udacity. The aim was to create online versions of classes that normally have high failure rates and prove to be roadblocks for students trying to move through college – entry-level math, college algebra and elementary statistics.

The project specifically targeted San Jose State students who had failed remedial courses, high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds and community college students who were on SJSU wait lists for admission or who had failed placement exams.

The first semester certainly had major bumps.

While 83 percent of the students stuck with courses to the end, which is high for online-only classes, a small proportion passed.

In remedial math, all of the San Jose State students already failed traditional face-to-face course once; 29 percent of them passed the online version. Only 12 percent of the non-SJSU students passed.

In college algebra, 44 percent of the SJSU students passed; only 12 percent of non-SJSU students.

In Intro Statistics, 51 percent of SJSU students and 45 percent of non-SJSU students passed.

This is a wake-up call to make adjustments, not a reason to jettison the project.

San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn makes that clear, telling The Bee's editorial board: "We are not walking away from the data and the partnership." The plan is to analyze the data, make adjustments and offer courses again in spring 2014.

Udacity's Sebastian Thrun made it clear in January that he believes Massive Open Online Courses are "not a viable model of education." On the contrary, he said, it's important to bring along students who need extra attention and help, and make the professor central to that process.

That came through loud and clear in the first semester.

For example, 45 students at a public charter high school founded by Brown when he was mayor of Oakland signed up for courses. Many did not have computers or Internet access at home and were falling behind, so the school opened up access to the computer lab and assigned teachers to help.

The partners understand that teacher presence and caring is vital. The traditional 15-week semester also proved constraining for some students. Greater flexibility would help.

Brown said in January that "Failure is the precursor for success … because you learn," the point of a pilot project. The problem, Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education is "all the hype." The early data should "bring us down to earth."

Reaching low-income, first-generation college-goers through online courses has promise. But it will not be an overnight miracle to long-standing education challenges.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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