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That Bright Shiny MOOC Future

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MOOCs totally provide an educational experience equal to or better than traditional college classrooms:

In January, San Jose State University made a big announcement: It had reached a deal with the startup Udacity to offer college classes for credit online, for a modest fee, not only to its own students but to anyone who wanted to take them. The move was touted as a major step in online learning’s Clay Christensen-approved march toward the ultimate disruption of higher education.

It seems, however, that there are a few more kinks to work out before we all toss out the books and the buildings for good. Inside Higher Ed reported on Thursday that San Jose State is suspending the Udacity partnership just six months after it launched. The problem: More than half the students in the first batch of online courses failed their final exams.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, a machine-learning legend at Stanford and Google, told the AP that the failure rates in the five classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent. Nor was the course material exactly rocket science—the five classes were in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology.

Thrun did note that 83 percent of students had completed the classes, a far higher rate than is typical for the free, open courses that have come to be known as MOOCs. Why so many failed is not fully clear, though the AP cites “officials” saying that a lot of the students who signed up had little college experience or were working full-time while taking the classes.

On the bright side, Thrun said Udacity had gained some valuable data from the experience. “We are experimenting and learning,” he said. “That to me is a positive.”

It’s always important to experiment and learn when students’ grades are at stake.

One of the arguments we frequently see in these MOOC discussions is that people hated their big survey courses so this would be better. Well, maybe you could screw around on Facebook during while your MOOC for Psychology 101 so it’s less boring, but 56-76% of students aren’t failing those courses when they see faculty in person. My History 141 failure rate is around 5-8%. This is a class of 125 students and the failures consist entirely of students who either stop coming to class or don’t turn in papers.

This is a pretty powerful piece of evidence suggesting the vast inferiority of MOOCs for students.

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