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MOOC Setback: San Jose State Cancels For-Profit Udacity Classes


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Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One semester into an innovative new online program at California’s San Jose State University, school administrators have decided to suspend all coursework co-created with education entrepreneur Udacity. The reason: most of the students in the trial run failed their final exams.

A spokesperson for the school noted, “The plan right now is to pause for one semester, there are a couple of different areas we need to work on.”

Udacity, a private company based out of high-tech Silicon Valley, is a MOOC provider. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are fully-online classes from established schools that are offered for free or at extremely reduced rates. The cancelled classes at San Jose State cost $150 each.

SJSU’s initiative to translate some of its classes into accessible online programs involved both for-profit Udacity and the non-profit ‘edX’ consortium created by Harvard and MIT. San Jose State will continue to offer courses through edX; only Udacity classes are being put on hold. They will resume in the spring pending improvements, according to university officials.

MOOC 2.0 ChallengedPreviously, Udacity has not offered course credit. The deal with San Jose was the higher ed startup’s first attempt to host MOOCs for college credit at a vastly reduced rate compared to traditional on-campus programs. Project managers referred to the initiative as “MOOC 2.0.”

But the latest news that San Jose State University has temporarily suspended Udacity-based classes casts doubt on the viability of the emerging MOOC model. In some of the classes, final exam failure rates were as high as two-thirds of students. All the courses were taught at the introductory level. The reason students failed these initial courses in droves remains unclear, but a full report will be released next month.

Democratizing EducationUdacity was founded by Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun, a Google VP. It all began with one of his classes, Artificial Intelligence. In 2011, Thrun decided to deliver the course through the world wide web for free. Attendance exceeded 160,000 students from 190 nations. The following year, Thrun and colleagues launched Udacity, Inc.

Udacity bills itself as a revolutionary vehicle for bringing education normally available at high cost to anyone, anywhere for free or at affordable tuition rates. But MOOCs are controversial. On one side of the debate are champions of “democratizing education” via scalable Internet technology. On the other side, MOOC skeptics worry that MOOCs could undermine the value of a traditional university education.

The news in California comes as the Georgia Institute of Technology announces a brand-new partnership with Udacity to host its graduate computer science program entirely online. It will cost students under $7,000 to earn a master’s degree, well below the price of a comparable on-campus diploma.

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