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Scores Improve in New Round of San Jose State’s Experiment With Udacity

Earlier this year, it looked as if a high-profile online-education experiment at San Jose State University had gone on the rocks. In the first courses the university ran with technology from Udacity, the online-learning company, students’ grades were, frankly, dismal.

But now the pilot program appears to be back on course, buoyed by encouraging data from this summer’s trials, in which the university offered tweaked versions of the same courses to a much different mix of students.

In the spring, the university adapted three courses for Udacity’s platform and offered them to small groups of online students for credit. The idea was to test whether Udacity’s technology and teaching methods, which the company originally developed for its massive open online courses, could be useful in a more conventional online setting.

But the pass rates in all three Udacity-powered courses trailed far behind the rates in comparable face-to-face courses at San Jose State. The university decided not to offer any trial courses through Udacity in the fall.

The trials that had been planned for the summer went forward, however, with tweaked versions of the same three courses, plus two others. The results have been more promising. Pass rates in each of the three repeated courses leaped upward, approaching and sometimes exceeding the pass rates in the face-to-face sections.

For example, in the spring trial, only 25 percent of the students taking the “Udacified” version of a statistics course earned a C grade or higher; in the summer trial, 73 percent made at least a C. Only students in the adapted version of an entry-level mathematics course continued to lag well behind those in the face-to-face version on the San Jose State campus.

The results come with an important caveat: Unlike the spring trials, which drew on San Jose State undergraduates as well as underprivileged high-school students, the summer trials were open to anybody who wanted to register.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, said that half the students in the summer trials already held bachelor’s degrees and 20 percent had advanced degrees. In general, the summer students were older, with more work experience and higher levels of educational attainment. Given the difference in populations, trying to compare the pass rates for the spring and summer trials is probably not a particularly profitable exercise.

Nonetheless, San Jose State and Udacity are taking the summer results as progress. Both have put out news releases detailing the results, and the university’s release says it will restart its trials with Udacity in January 2014.

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