Friday, July 19, 2013

Sebastian Thrun: Improving our for-credit college path with SJSU Plus

Udacity has a simple vision: to make great college-level classes available to everyone (and anyone). And we know that to attain that vision we not only have to be great teachers, but also great students -- so with everything we do, we are committed to learning, improving, and then learning more. 

That’s why we decided, together with our partner San Jose State University, to pause the SJSU Plus program (the MOOC for college credit pathway we piloted this spring) and use the fall months to retool and optimize the experience for the students we most want to reach. While pass rates in the pilot were not as high as we would have liked, there is some context around the pilot and our next steps with SJSU that’s critical to understand:

  • The student population in these classes was very different than what you’d see in traditional SJSU classes. Specifically, many of these students attended Title I high schools, weren’t current college students, or had previously required remedial math course work. That means outcomes in the pilot cannot be compared to traditional on-campus classes on an apples-to-apples basis. 
  • Given the non-traditional student population, we need to innovate around the pacing and duration of the classes. The traditional-semester pacing of the classes didn’t work well with the lifestyles and time-demands of the students in the program. In fact, 30% of our students worked 30+/hours per week in addition to coursework. Another 40% worked at least part-time. Work, families, other classes, and high school schedules demand a more innovative approach to pacing and we’re committed to figuring that out with SJSU over the fall. 
  • The MOOC classes we developed with SJSU will remain open and available to anyone to take for free -- at their own pace. It’s just the for-credit pathway that we are working to improve and will pause during the fall months. 

Lots of things went right. For starters, we’ve succeeded in reaching a much broader student population than you’d find on any college campus: 62% of students in the pilot were not matriculated SJSU students, 20% were high school students from Title I schools, and 22%-25% of the students in our two algebra classes were community college students. Further, we gave students who had struggled with remedial algebra another chance to succeed: 100% of the matriculated SJSU students in the Entry Level Mathematics class had failed a remedial math class before and did not have another option to take this class at SJSU. 


We also made great strides in retention. While traditional MOOCs see retention rates in the 5%-10% range, 83% of students in the SJSU Plus program stuck with the classes to the end. The course support services we provided and improved upon during the pilot were an important driver of that retention rate. From direct contact with instructors, to phone calls from staff, to SMS text reminders, we supported the students through every step of their class.

We have already identified and implemented a number of improvements based on what we learned. We’ve added more orientation materials to help students get familiar with online classes in general and the Udacity platform. We also made updates to the site to help students better pace themselves as they move through the class material and exercises. 


We’re the first to admit that there’s a lot we can do to make the classes better. For example, we are interested in innovating around the pacing of these classes. In our pilot, we stuck to a traditional, 15-week semester timeframe. While that schedule may work for full-time students on campus, we know it doesn’t for everyone. As we broaden the base of students we reach with these classes, we should broaden our perspective on what a “semester” looks like. Imagine a world where you could take these classes for credit, while setting your own pace and deadlines to fit within work schedules, within times when you have access to computers, or within high-school classes schedules.

Both Udacity and SJSU put our students first. That's why we are committed to innovating on the student experience. And that's why we will use the fall for building on what worked and to implement improvements to best serve the most students.