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A MOOC Experiment Ends

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The disastrous experiment between San Jose State University and Udacity has basically ended after it turns out students fail in enormous numbers using MOOCs.

“This is very much the end of the San Jose State-Udacity partnership for this pilot, and it’s really an attempt — in my opinion — to frame it in a positive light,” said Phil Hill, a higher education consultant. “This is an attempt to do a very nice eulogy for an event that wasn’t really pretty as it was happening.”

The project, known as SJSU Plus, has been on “pause” since this summer after its three spring semester courses posted pass rates between 23.8 and 50.5 percent — much lower than their on-campus equivalents. Although the rates rebounded over the summer, those sessions featured a vastly different student population, including some students with doctoral degrees. In comparison, the spring pilot included more at-risk students. After a National Science Foundation-backed study was published without fanfare in September, buzz about the project died down.

The results of SJSU Plus have even caused Udacity to shift its focus to corporate training. Speaking to Fast Company, the Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun said the disadvantaged students targeted by the pilot proved a mismatch for online education. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit,” he said.

23.8 to 50.5 percent passing rate. Wow. And if disadvantaged students aren’t the medium for this kind of education, who is? Harvard students? Who exactly is going to take these classes? No one who has the social and economic power to go to institutions where actual teaching occurs. The big public flagship school in a fairly average state, say the University of Rhode Island, has students not all that much more advanced or prepared than at San Jose. The leading public institutions like Michigan and Texas are filled with students who will also try to avoid these sorts of courses in order to achieve the real education they wanted by going to those schools. If these things aren’t for the masses–and let’s face it, the masses are not always the most motivated or prepared students–who are they for?

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  • Manta

    Eric, have you heard about Open University? What do you think about their model?

    • Donalbain

      Excellent point. The Open University is basically a lot of MOOCs put together, (as is my understanding of MOOCs) and yet it has an excellent reputation in the UK, both from students and from relevant outside bodies.

      • guthrie

        It also has specific set textbooks, support systems, week long summer camps where you do more university stuff, and a clientele that is basically what others in the thread are saying they take moocs for, i.e. interested people, often professionals, certainly adults, looking to expand their knowledge.

        Basically not many undergraduate teenagers.

      • Dave

        No. No it isn’t. It is as not-like-a-MOOC as every other long-established, fundamentally-sound distance-learning HE institution in the world, of which there are MANY, is.

  • CP Norris

    “If these things aren’t for the masses–and let’s face it, the masses are not always the most motivated or prepared students–who are they for?”

    Anecdotally, people who want to learn stuff on their own, don’t want to or can’t take a night class, but want a little more structure than just checking a book out of the library and going it alone.

    • Karen

      That would be me. I want to brush up on my Latin and learn Old English. Obviously this is for my own amusement, but I’d be willing to fork over $100/ semester for access to a couple lectures a week and assigned homework. The model is ideal for hobbyists, but apparently the groups providing this stuff don’t want to be an entertainment niche.

    • JL

      Yep. Or people like my friend with a PhD in chemistry who got a job at a biotech company and wanted to brush up on biology so that he could communicate better with coworkers and understand the bigger picture of what the company was doing.

      Possibly also people in highly rural areas, inside or outside the US, who aren’t within commuting distance of an institute of higher ed.

      I don’t know whether the numbers of people in these categories add up to enough to make MOOCs, rather than regular-sized online classes, worthwhile. Maybe.

    • That’s all fine–the issue is offering these courses as a direct substitute to regular college courses for credit.

      • the issue is offering these courses as a direct substitute to regular college courses for credit.

        Colleges already offer independent-study credits, right? Always been a racket there.

        • Well, perhaps. But independent study really covers a wide range of things, from quite meaningful one-on-one interactions with a professor through a directed reading to an excuse for easy credit. Certainly though the total amount of independent study that goes on is nothing even close to what the vision of MOOC taught classes would offer. Plus the idea of what each of these things would do is quite different. Really, they aren’t useful things to compare.

          • I misspoke; I’m thinking of correspondence courses.

        • NonyNony

          Colleges already offer independent-study credits, right? Always been a racket there.

          ?

          How is it a racket? Independent study at most reputable universities can only be applied in a minimal fashion towards an undergraduate degree program. In a grad degree program independent study is a large part of what you’re doing, but since a graduate program is largely about learning how to do research, I’m pretty sure everyone involved knows exactly what they’re signing up for there.

          No reputable university would replace “Intro to Physical Chemistry” with “Independent Study”, but that’s basically what an Introductory P-Chem MOOC advertises that it can do.

          • Mo

            The racket is when you get credit for the class by passing the final exam and paying full tuition as if you had taken the course. People going back to school get zapped with this a lot. I had a roommate who had gotten her RN back in the days when it was a certificate from the hospital that trained you. She went back to get her BA(/S?) and ended up paying hefty tuition fees to not have to take classes where she already knew the material.

      • Karen

        That’s exactly it. This is a terrible model for a degree but a great idea for continuing education for fields that require it, or nerds like me who want to take classes instead of watch TV. Why these groups can’t be happy as competitors to PBS is beyond my comprehension.

        • stickler

          Oh, come now:

          Why these groups can’t be happy as competitors to PBS is beyond my comprehension.

          Competition with PBS might, as you suggest, get them $100 a semester. Competition with Stanford, if their promises pan out might get them $25,000 a semester. Federally-subsidized through student loans, no less.

          As always, follow the grift.

      • I and a number of people I know have gotten some benefit from Coursera courses in our field of work (programming). I’m considering picking up a few math courses to fill out some gaps in my educational background. I think these programs are great for the same kind of people who would take non-credit courses at community colleges.

        Those cost money, though. I don’t see how stuff like Coursera will be able to stay free over the long term without being subsidized by university MOOC programs, which I agree are a scam. I’d prefer to see them switch to a direct fee model.

      • A slight extension: the issue is offering these courses as a substitute for regular courses that can do what the privatizers want to do: namely, deal with access issues in underfunded systems by piping in video lectures; shed labor costs by radically downsizing faculty and departments (with the putative justification that this will be passed on in the form of lower tuition); and “disrupt” inefficient modes of education (despite lectures on video being rather old hat).

    • Right. Which is totally fine for what it is. I myself like downloading iTunes U history courses because I like learning about history/seeing how other historians teach this material.

      But that’s a pretty small audience, and more importantly it’s not an audience that’s going to A. make a lot of new money or B. allow universities to shed labor costs.

  • I can’t help wondering whether the MOOC grading is perhaps more objective, and failing these students in a rate they *should* be failed at, were sympathetic (or administration-intimidated) instructors not giving undeserved passing grades.

    Not at all saying that’s how it’s working, b/c I don’t know anything about the facts here – just a thought.

    • No way. First, what does objective mean? At least in courses that are not, say, a math course that might have an actual answer, such a question loses meaning. Second, the only way such a course would work in a history class is to offer multiple choice tests, which is a terrible way to evaluate historical knowledge. Certainly the failure level on multiple choice is going to be far higher than short answer tests. But one can legitimately not know, say, that it was the Tenure of Office Act that brought Andrew Johnson to impeachment and still know that Andrew Johnson was impeached because of his resistance to Republican ideas of what Reconstruction should look like.

      • Like I said, just a passing thought.

        Probably I shouldn’t comment when I am too distracted by “real life” to inform myself on “internet life.”

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        Mostly agreed about math (or physical sciency-mathy stuff), but it’s still hard to keep subjectivity out.

        Unless you use “full credit for the right answer (no matter how you got it) and zero credit for anything else”. But most of the grading needs to be “right method + right answer”, so any sort of partial credit and you’ve got subjectivity.

        Not as blatantly, true.

    • Not likely. For one thing, MOOC grading tends to be multiple choice over written assignments, which means for a huge group of disciplines, the grading won’t tell you anything about mastery of material.

      • Ah you hit a bee in my skull cap.

        I used to think as you do, but when I started working on question generation and thus study the literature on MCQs I’ve come to believe your view (which I once held) is false.

        MCQs are useful for assessment and for general learning in pretty arbitrary cases (a clear exception is the direct performance of a physical skill). Good ones are difficult to construct but they can provide information about mastery at all levels of the Bloom taxonomy. Their huge advantages are objectivity and speed (speed not only in grading, but in taking; you can cover a lot more in an MCQ exam). The downsides are difficulty in setting, difficulty in detecting guessing, and ease of cheating if the exam leaks. The first and second two are in tension, obviously because the answer to the second two is construction more questions, but the first makes that more difficult.

  • BruceJ

    Well, this is why Sebastian Thrun is reconsidering what a MOOC is good for.

    While there’s been a shit-ton of money wasted on this experiment, at least they’re reality-based enough to admit ‘This doesn’t work’, close it down.

    It could be worse, this could be run by people who are Twue Believers that “MOOC’s cannot fail, they can only be failed’ that seems to drive the rest of the education industry, like the value of standardized testing to the exclusion of everyone else.

    The real problem with our education system is poverty..

    • While Thrun may be honest enough to rethink the whole thing, I am remain highly skeptical that others won’t fill the void. Given that state and federal education officials believe capitalists can solve our education problems and that there’s whole levels of administrators and faculty who want to be administrators who will make choices on these issues to promote their own careers, color me pessimistic that this very strong evidence against MOOC effectiveness will do much to stop it.

      • JL

        Yeah I think there are a couple of different types of people who are big MOOC proponents.

        One set are the “We want to corporatize education, devalue labor, and make profits” people. Writers like you have made me more aware that these people exist.

        The other set (which is all of the MOOC proponents that I know personally outside of the Internet) are what I call the “hammer/nail” people – computer science people who are probably at least left-leaning and maybe legitimately left, idealistic, concerned with social justice and making the world a better place, and looking for ways to accomplish this with the technical skills that they patiently acquired to make their careers with. These people look at every social problem and want it to be solvable with software because they want to do good in the world and software is what they know how to do. The tool they know how to use is a hammer, so everything looks like a nail. If I had not come across writing that balanced this out, or other opportunities for skilled work in activism, I would probably have been one of these people, and I know a bunch of them.

        At their worst the latter group are the sort of people who run around claiming that we could end poverty and homelessness by teaching everyone to code. At their best they actually do find ways to enable social justice with their technical skills, and, even more importantly, learn to tell the difference between a genuine contribution and something they’re doing to feel like they’re helping.

        Thrun’s willingness to reconsider in the face of evidence that his ideas weren’t working suggests that he was part of the latter category – that he went into it wanting to help people using the skills that he had, rather than rake in money or power.

    • sparks

      I am never interested in whatever shit-ton of money is wasted on an experiment that negatively those who are the guinea pigs. In fact, I would rather prefer (shit-ton * x) required to be spent to fix whatever negative current and future effects the experiment had on those guinea pigs. Paid by the greedy businesses and damnfool institutions who promulgate it, of course.

  • The results of SJSU Plus have even caused Udacity to shift its focus to corporate training.

    On to the next batch of suckers!

    Sebastian Thrun said the disadvantaged students targeted by the pilot proved a mismatch for online education. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit,” he said.

    Ah, the ubiquitous user error. This reminds me of Lululemon’s former CEO blaming quality issues with its wildly overpriced) yoga pants on the fact some women are too fat. (He had to step down as a result.)

    • Schadenboner

      some women are too fat. (He had to step down as a result.)

      Was he sharing a rope bridge with one or…?

    • NonyNony

      Corporate training is actually a decent fit for the MOOC model. You have an audience of people who are generally already fairly educated, who have a strong incentive to complete the course and learn the material, and who probably won’t need a lot of extra direction. You aren’t granting degrees, so you don’t have to worry about the reputation of your institution. And expectations for corporate training are already pretty low and narrowly targeted – you don’t get a lot of corporate training that focuses on something like “European History From 1600 to 1650” or “Fundamentals of Algorithms in Computer Science”. Courses like “Installation and Maintenance of Windows Enterprise Servers” or “C# Programming for the Java Developer”, on the other hand, have the right level of scope for a MOOC to do well.

      • mc

        Even there, I think they’re only useful to the extent some lazy compliance officer needs a CYA when something bad happens. In my experience, they’re a poor substitute for actual live instruction, but better than nothing.

        I would agree with the above comments that they’re really only ideal for the niche market of motivated geeks who are genuinely interested in the topic for knowledge’s sake.

  • mc

    regardless of how well-documented the poor performance of MOOCs is, I think the fact that pro-MOOC/online for-profit school rhetoric can be combined with the anti-intellectual & anti-academic rhetoric that GOP voters have had hammered into their skulls over the last couple decades will STILL makes them hard to kill. And even a potential threat to public funding of education.

    if established institutions of higher learning are the enemy, MOOCs are one of the allies in the fight.

  • Schadenboner

    23.8 to 50.5 percent passing rate.

    Do we have data on failure rates for SJSU’s traditional online (that is, non-“massive” online classes hosted on SJSU’s own BlackBoard (or whatever WBLS they use) servers) classes? I didn’t see anything in the article.

  • B. Terwilliger

    does it count if you sign up for a course but then never log in? cause I’ve never done that at all.

  • Richard Hershberger

    I am reminded of Sesame Street. It was created around 1970 with the idea that it would give an educational boost to kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Maybe it did, but the core audience turned out to be white middle class families. This has expanded to PBS Kids in general. My daughter in kindergarten is reading at a second grade level, and PBS Kids programming (much of which is superb) deserves much of the credit. But not all: she also is growing up in a house full of books, and having books read to her. PBS Kids is a great supplement to the old way of getting kids to read, but I doubt that it stands on its own.

    • Schadenboner

      the old way of getting kids to read

      Beating them over the head with a book until they can read it to you?

      Worked well until my parents started using the OED…

      • Colin Day

        Did it break their wrists, or your skull?

  • Bill Murray

    South Dakota’s Board of Regent’s is pushing us to be part of StraighterLine (http://www.straighterline.com/how-it-works/how-to-earn-college-credits/). Which seems like a slightly better deal, but not one we are being completely forced into as of yet

  • Bruce Ross

    Dabbled in MOOC’s personally but never gotten the motivation to see one through. As a resident of a rural area hours from any major university, though, the access across the boundaries of geography is a pretty attractive idea.

  • guthrie
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