Our View: Online class pilot project at San Jose State is educational

July 28, 2013 

An experiment using online classes to help struggling students in math got off to a rough start. But it's wise to learn from the pilot project, not to prematurely declare it a failure.

"San Jose State's big experiment with massive online courses fails massively," one headline read. Others had a similar theme. This rush to judgment was based on basic misunderstanding about the design of the experiment. This project still deserves a chance.

As Gov. Jerry Brown said in announcing this experiment in January, California has three major challenges to confront: 1. Only 16 percent of California State University students graduate in four years. 2. Millions of young people with college aptitude aren't going to college. 3. Even if they get to college, they have to take remedial English or math or repeat courses.

So Brown promoted the test 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 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 had failed placement exams.

The first semester certainly had major bumps. While 83 percent of the students stuck with courses to the end, only a small proportion passed.

In remedial math, all of the San Jose State students already failed traditional face-to-face remedial math once and 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, while only 12 percent of non-SJSU students passed. In Intro to 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 told The Sacramento Bee that the school is not walking away from the partnership. The plan is to analyze the data, make adjustments and offer courses again in spring 2014.

Also evident from the early experience: Online only is not sufficient. Professors are central to helping students who need extra attention.

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." That's the point of a pilot project. The problem, Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education is the hype. The early data should "bring us down to Earth."

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

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