MOOC Math Students Beat On-Campus Pass Rate

Udacity-San Jose State MOOC partnership, paused over poor early results, turns a corner and will resume.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

August 28, 2013

4 Min Read

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San Jose State University's (SJSU's) partnership with Udacity seems to be paying off after all, based on preliminary results from the program's summer term.

Statistics that SJSU published Wednesday night are the results that excited Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun into declaring he was on the verge of discovering a magic formula for effective online education. At the time of that interview with InformationWeek, the numbers were still coming in. SJSU said it considers these results preliminary -- but solid enough to talk about.

In the SJSU Plus program, Udacity uses its massive open online course (MOOC) platform to host courses taught by SJSU instructors and offered for credit to enrolled students for a $150 fee. The same courses are available for free to any user of the website, but not for credit.

Poor results in an early test of the program this spring prompted SJSU to hold off on offering more courses this fall, but the summer program results offer justification for resuming the program in 2014, as planned.

Pass rates for elementary statistics and college algebra courses both improved significantly from spring to summer, reaching 83% and 73%, respectively. They now exceed the average pass rate for on-campus courses in those subjects.

[ Online course style: How Udacity Creates A More Engaging MOOC. ]

The pass rate for an entry-level math course improved, but only to about 30%, compared with 45.5% for the on-campus equivalent. This is a remedial math course and SJSU's report emphasizes that, particularly in the spring, it was offered to students who had failed the course once before and otherwise would have been directed to go back to community college.

"A 30% pass rate does sound low, until you stop and think that most of these students would not otherwise have had access to the course at all," said SJSU provost and VP for academic affairs Ellen Junn in a statement.

The table below shows pass rates (students who scored a C or better).

Spring Pilot 2013

Summer Pilot 2013

SJSU On-Campus(based on past 6 semesters)

Elementary Statistics




College Algebra




Entry Level Math




General Psychology

not offered



Intro to Programming

not offered



Junn pointed to three areas of improvement that made a difference:

-- Better orientation, particularly for students not otherwise enrolled at SJSU.

-- More encouragement along the way, including online tools to help students track their progress and mentors checking in with students more frequently.

-- More communication, with student feedback incorporated into changes in the courses. "We're also sending less email and more messages when students are 'in class' online," according to Junn.

A few other things were different. Although the spring semester boasted an 83% retention rate, over the summer SJSU let it drop to 60%, reflecting a "decision to be more flexible when students signaled to instructors that they needed to drop the course," according to Junn.

Some of the improvement in pass scores could be interpreted as a result of more students who would have failed having a chance to drop the course before they got to that point.

The summer enrollment was also much larger, with 2,091 students enrolled in five classes, compared with just under 300 students in three classes in the spring.

When SJSU Plus classes resume, the university wants to do more to "better sync our courses with our students' busy schedules," said Junn. Students also have asked for greater flexibility in course pacing, allowing them to speed up or slow down outside the confines of a semester schedule, and SJSU is investigating how it might make that work.

"To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works," Thrun wrote in a blog post on the latest results. "Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement. And we know from our data that there is much more to be done."

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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