University Suspends Online Classes After More Than Half the Students Fail

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 19 2013 5:16 PM

University Suspends Online Classes After More Than Half the Students Fail

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks after receiving an ingenuity award for education last fall.
Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks after receiving Smithsonian Magazine's ingenuity award for education last fall.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images for Smithsonian Magazine

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.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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.

Advertisement

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.”

Sure, gaining experience is good. And there’s nothing wrong with experimentation. It’s a sure bet that somehow, at some point, online instruction will indeed reshape higher education, if perhaps in more modest ways than its most ardent backers assume. Missteps are part of the process.

Still, this is not the first heavily hyped online-learning venture to make headlines for going dramatically awry. The question is, what university will be eager to offer up its students as the next lab rats in what amounts to a massive pedagogical R&D program by for-profit Silicon Valley startups?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 4:26 PM Global Oceans Break All-Time Heat Record; World on Pace for Warmest Year Ever
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.