By Jason Dearen
SAN FRANCISCO — Five online classes that were announced with great fanfare by the governor at San Jose State University were suspended Thursday after more than half of the students failed the final exams.
“The plan right now is to pause for one semester, there are a couple of different areas we need to work on,” school spokeswoman Patricia Harris said about the courses offered in conjunction with Udacity Inc.
Harris said the school will keep offering online courses developed with edX, another company. The edX courses are a mixture of classroom and online learning.
The decision was an early setback for the so-called “Massive Open Online Courses” strategy. In May, 10 large public university systems in New York, Colorado and elsewhere announced plans to incorporate the classes into their own teaching.
The failure rate on final exams for the San Jose State courses involving Udacity ranged from 56 to 76 percent, said Sebastian Thrun, a researcher at Stanford University and Google Inc. who launched Udacity.
Despite the high failure rate, Thrun said valuable data and experience were gained from the effort, which will help improve future classes.
“We are experimenting and learning. That to me is a positive,” Thrun said.
The school and Udacity plan to look into providing more information about the syllabus at the beginning of the class, so students are better informed about the requirements before committing. Officials also want to look at whether the online semester should be longer than traditional school terms to provide students with more flexibility.
The five online courses being suspended are elementary statistics, college algebra, entry level math, introduction to programming and introduction to psychology.
University officials announced the experimental pilot program for the online initiative with Udacity in January. The entry level courses were offered for $150 each; the university charges about $620 for similar classroom-based courses.
Called “San Jose State University Plus,” the effort is different from other online education programs because it offered introductory courses for credit, charged low fees and welcomed students who don’t attend the school, officials said.
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.
Thrun said 83 percent of the students — a mixture of university attendees and inner city high school students from Oakland and other places — finished the courses. But it was unclear why many did not pass or take the final exam.
Officials say the data suggests many of the students had little college experience or held jobs while attending classes. Both populations traditionally struggle with college courses.
“We had this element that we picked, student populations who were not likely to succeed,” Thrun said.
The next phase will focus on luring students who self-select the courses and could be more motivated to pass the final exam.