During his recent economic address at Knox College, President Barack Obama briefly referenced the promise of online learning. Specifically, he celebrated the fact that some colleges are “blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time,” a development that holds great potential to contain the rising cost of higher education. Yet this potential is still a long way from being realized, as demonstrated by a recent hiccup at California’s San Jose State University.
Like many of America’s public universities, San Jose State has struggled in recent years to increase its graduation rate. Only 8 percent of students who enrolled as full-time first-years in the fall of 2003 managed to complete their bachelor’s degree in four years, a share that climbed to 46 percent over six years. For students who enrolled in the fall of 2005, the numbers barely budged, with 7 percent finishing in four years and 46 percent finishing in six years. San Jose State has an ambitious plan to increase that share, which includes San Jose State Plus, a new effort to harness the potential of online learning.
The San Jose State Plus initiative is a wonderful example of innovative public sector thinking. Rather than build new online courses in isolation, San Jose State partnered with edX, a non-profit organization founded by Harvard and MIT, and Udacity, a highly-regarded education startup, to create courses that were rigorous, accessible and cost-effective.
But as Jason Dearen reports, earlier this month San Jose State suspended five of its new online courses, all of which were offered in conjunction with Udacity and had no classroom learning. The courses — in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introductory programming and introductory psychology — were in theory exactly the right kind of courses for an online instructional provider to teach, as they covered basic introductory material. Outsourcing this kind of teaching could in theory be an enormous boon to the bottom line of colleges and universities, as the most effective providers could spread their online courses across the country, sparing the need for large numbers of expensive faculty members. Indeed, Udacity’s entry-level courses were offered for $150 each, far less than the $620 San Jose State charges for traditional classroom-based courses.
The problem, however, is that between 56 percent and 76 percent of students who took the final exams ultimately failed them. Udacity has acknowledged that the results of its collaboration with San Jose State have been disappointing, and the startup is committed, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, to learn from its mistakes. That online learning will experience growing pains is to be expected.