Not quite an A, but a better report card for Udacity: online students’ scores improve

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Credit: Stuart Miles

One month after San Jose State University (SJSU) suspended an online learning program with Udacity because of disappointing student results, the online education startup reports that things are starting to look up.

On Wednesday, the two organizations shared results from their summer pilot program indicating that students’ pass rates had improved. While the percentage of students who received a C or better in classes during the spring pilot program ranged from 23.8 percent to 50.5 percent, the percentage of summer students with similar scores in the same classes ranged from 29.8 percent to 83 percent. For comparison, the percentage of students who received a C or better in the school’s in-person classes ranged from 45.5 percent to 76.3 percent.

Udacity Summer Scores
According to Udacity and SJSU, this massive open online course (MOOC) program differed from the spring pilot in a couple of key ways that likely affected student results: the program was more flexible with students who wanted to drop out, so retention dropped to 60 percent from 83 percent; and, instead of actively recruiting inner-city high school students, it opened up enrollment to anyone. (The company said it still reached more than 2,000 students, most of whom would not ordinarily attend college.)

The startup also said it changed a number of course elements, including:

  • Adding more support staff,
  • Changing the pacing methodology (so students had earlier warnings about poor performance); and
  • Increasing professors’ time with students.

The new results aren’t exactly a home run: results from the online program still significantly trail in-person outcomes in a couple of courses. But they do show that the company is learning from its data and improving.

In a briefing ahead of the announcement, Clarissa Shen, Udacity’s VP of business development and marketing, told me that instead of launching its planned for-credit experience with SJSU in the fall, it will wait until the Spring 2014 semester. That’s because the company wants additional time to improve the program and help the school enable asynchronous online learning that lets a student progress through a course at his own pace, she said.

Over the past few months, MOOCs in general, and Udacity specifically, have weathered a fair amount of criticism. In a blog post, Udacity co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun offered an update on the company’s progress and a few choice words for detractors:

“To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works. Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. …We are entering uncharted territory. I have been fortunate to work with some of the very best innovators in the world. I have learned that innovation requires a clear vision, many iterations, and a willingness to learn and improve. I believe we are on a path where we can fundamentally rewrite the law of access in higher education.  But this is just the beginning of this path.”

Image by Stuart Miles via Shutterstock.

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That is a pretty unusable table of data there if it’s read with any amount of attention.

Comparing two different online groups with differing backgrounds and ability to bail out?

And it’s compared against six terms of in-person classes.

Uh huh.

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