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SJSU Takes a 'Breather' from MOOC Project

San Jose State University (SJSU) is taking "a short breather" from its ground-breaking experiment with for-credit massive open online courses, better known as MOOCs, the school disclosed this week. But university representatives insisted that this break is part of the plan and not a reaction to preliminary findings indicating that some students didn't do as well in the unsupervised online courses as they might have done in traditional courses.

"We entered into these pilot programs to test these modalities with our faculty and our students," said Ellen Junn, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at SJSU. "Part of that process is to collect data and then to analyze and interpret that data to get a better sense of how these online learning environments affect student learning, faculty workload, and so forth. We felt that this was a good time to pause and analyze that data."

The pilot program, dubbed SJSU Plus, was developed by SJSU faculty working with leading MOOC provider Udacity. The initial program ran in the spring 2013 semester and consisted of three courses: entry-level mathematics, elementary statistics, and college algebra. The courses were structured as MOOCs, though they weren't strictly "massive," but limited to 100 students per class. Half those students were already attending the university, and half were non-matriculating students, including veterans, community college students, and even a few high school students.

"One of the goals of pilot program was to see how a MOOC would work for students who are more at risk," Junn said. "We intentionally chose students from many different backgrounds, students that we knew, historically, don't do well in online courses."

The university opened up the program over the summer, added two more courses ("Introduction to Psychology" and "Introduction to Computer Programming"), and attracted nearly 2,000 students, including students from other countries.

"We've never taught like this before, but we learned a lot from that first semester and made adjustments for the summer program," Junn said.

One of the things they learned was that students who had never taken this type of class didn't understand the mechanics of the process. The high school students, in particular, seemed to struggle with it. Adding orientation videos and more up-front preparation improved their performance in the summer program, Junn said.

"Once the students understand the expectations and the rigor, that seems to make a big difference," Junn said. "So we put that up front, and it has a huge impact on their success.

SJSU plans to continue making modifications to improve its MOOC offerings and will re-establish the courses in the spring, Junn said.

SJSU and Udacity issued a joint statement explaining their plan to "re-tool" the for-credit SJSU Plus courses and to offer them again in the fall. "[W]e will analyze the summer data in addition to the spring data, continue to disaggregate the various student group data, make improvements and adjustments, ensure that campus policies and processes are all in alignment, and increase internal and external communications and opportunities for discussion and dialogue," they stated. "We will be guided in all our work by the faculty members who are teaching the SJSU Plus courses in addition to increasing a consultative process of discussion and dialogue with our Senate and our faculty union members as well as all other faculty on campus."

News that the school was putting the brakes on the program because students couldn't handle it stemmed from a Power Point presentation Junn gave at a recent academic retreat.

"One never puts out preliminary data for public consumption," she said. "So I had reservations about presenting these early findings. It was just a snapshot, not the final data."

According to SJSU and Udacity, 62 percent of students in the pilot program were non-matriculating students, 20 percent were high school students from a Title I school, and 100 percent of the matriculated SJSU students in the remedial math class had failed a remedial math class before. Many of the students were balancing work and study, they said, with 36 percent working 30-plus-hours a week. A total of 77 percent of students overall worked at least part-time.

"We believe the difference in student population was one of the factors for the broad discrepancy between an 83 percent completion rate but pass rates of just 20 percent to 44 percent, specifically as it related to the pacing of the course," they said. "Our goal during the fall will be to explore innovations around potential asynchronous models that will address that discrepancy; it will take us time to build infrastructure to support and we are committed to doing that well."

The two organizations also pointed to positive stats: 29 percent of the matriculated SJSU students who had failed their remedial class in the past were able to pass with the SJSU Plus program. "Without SJSU Plus," they said, "those students would have had to leave SJSU and fulfill their remediation requirement at a community college, where the pass-rates for that population hover around 10 percent."

The numbers are currently being crunched by an external consulting group that was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The final report will be available in August, Junn said. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also provided a small grant to support the program.

All five MOOC courses were co-developed by university instructors and Udacity, which itself originated as an experiment at Stanford University. Udacity is one of a trio of MOOC providers currently dominating the market, which includes Coursera, a startup founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, and edX, a joint effort of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create an open-source online learning platform. SJSU also provides edX courses as optional resources for its professors who want to use them for flipped classes.

The university's experimentation with MOOCs grabbed headlines in May when a group of professors in the SJSU Philosophy department wrote an open letter to Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, in which they explained their decision not to use a MOOC he developed called JusticeX in a pilot program. The course was available to the school through a contract with edX, and had been suggested to the department by the SJSU administration as a potential resource for a blended course.

That letter did not influence SJSU's decision to hit the MOOC pause button, Junn insisted, though she admitted that it has added significantly to the conversation. She also dismissed charges that the university's decision might be seen as a setback for California's efforts to add MOOC and MOOC-like offerings to the state college and university curriculum.

"To us, this is not a setback at all," Junn said. "We're taking a breather to ensure that we are engaged in a careful, methodical, and reflective process to evaluate what's going on, and to provide more time for consultation with our campus faculty."

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