Stumble. On hold. Pause. Suspends. Falls short. Fails fast. Gets an F.

Last week, there was an almost gleeful torrent of articles describing the crumbling partnership between San Jose State University (SJSU) and Udacity, one of the leading massive online open course (MOOC) providers.

It’s unfortunate that SJSU’s daring experiment was cast in the media as such an epic failure because critics of online education will be all too eager to use this as proof that online courses cannot compare to what occurs within the classroom.

The sad fact is that institutions of higher education have never done an exceptional job of dealing with students underprepared for college. According to the Los Angeles Times, the CSU and community college systems “are estimated to spend more than $530 million each year on remedial English, reading and math courses on their campuses.” The purpose of these experimental online courses was to tackle the major hindrance that more than 50 percent of students entering SJSU are unable to meet basic requirements in elementary math and English.

The SJSU-Udacity partnership was announced on January 15, 2013. Only two weeks later, the pilot program began. The ultimate result of this mad scramble to throw three courses together unfortunately misrepresents the transformative potential of online learning.

Reporters highlighted how in traditional SJSU remedial classes, 74 percent of students were able to pass the class, while in the online Udacity version, no more than 51 percent were able to pass any of the three courses offered. The comparison strangely pits the pass rate of SJSU students in a traditional classroom against a very different population of 300 students—only half of whom came from SJSU; the remaining 150 students were from other community colleges, high schools, and the military.

Nevertheless, the pass rates underscore how unrealistic it was to think that remedial students—many of whom had already failed the traditional remedial course in a classroom setting—would suddenly have the wherewithal to complete a fully online course without a strong source of personalized support and scaffolding.

Perhaps had the two organizations had more than a fortnight to think things through, they would have questioned why they believed that a flipped classroom experience could work for students struggling in gateway courses but that students already underprepared for college would be able to stay motivated and afloat in a fully online remedial course.

Remember: the Udacity trial was concurrent with edX’s pilot partnership with SJSU in which MIT course materials were being used to flip the classroom in an introductory SJSU Circuits course. Students watched the online edX materials (lectures, quizzes, virtual labs) at home and then met with SJSU lecturer Khosrow Ghadiri in the classroom to go through problem sets together. That course experienced a remarkable improvement in its pass rate, shooting upward from 55 percent to 91 percent. The blended learning environment created in the SJSU-edX pilot program was a testament to the need for personal guidance and support when it comes to working with MOOC materials.

MOOCs are still incomplete forms of education. They do not function well as stand-alone courses. With their vestiges of old-school learning models that include lecture-based formats, course start- and end-dates, and a fundamental lack of focus on competency-based education, MOOCs reaffirm our current system of learning. We believe that a quarter, trimester, or semester means something about a student’s understanding of a particular subject matter. The near ridiculousness of our educational system is cleverly described by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy:

Imagine learning to ride a bicycle, and I give you a bicycle. Maybe I give you a lecture ahead of time, and I give you that bicycle for two weeks, and then I come back after two weeks, and I say, “Well, you’re having trouble taking left turns. You can’t quite stop. You’re an 80% bicyclist, so I’m going to out a big C-stamp on your forehead.” And then I say, “Here’s a unicycle.”

How could we have possibly expected remedial students—already unprepared for the academic rigors of college—to succeed suddenly in an even less personalized learning environment? Most online educational providers are discovering that it takes a certain kind of grit combined with other non-cognitive traits for students to persist and complete a fully online course. It also takes the help and encouragement of active and involved mentors/advisors pushing the students along toward the finish line.

Of course, everything’s clearer in retrospect, and perhaps a fully online competency-based remediation program could have worked. Perhaps a blended learning environment like the one facilitated through the edX partnership was the way to go. In the end, unfortunately, the SJSU-Udacity pilot program forcibly put those 300 students on unicycles and watched the chaos unfold.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD