Udacity, San Jose State University offer online classes for credit

In June 2012, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown called Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun asking for help. The result? San Jose State Plus, online courses for academic credit.

The SJSU campus. Wikimedia Commons
So you've graduated from high school and been accepted at a four-year college. But when you arrive on campus you find out that you can't pass college entry-level courses, so it's back to remedial classes. That's the fate of half of all freshman at San Jose State University, according to Provost Ellen Junn. Add to those woes decreases in funding for higher education across California, higher tuition fees, and greater competition for college admission.

Those are just some of the reasons the university has partnered with Silicon Valley startup Udacity to offer San Jose State Plus, online courses for academic credit. These types of classes are called MOOCs (massive open online courses), and San Jose State administrators say this new program marks the first time a MOOC is being offered purely online for credit.

Udacity began offering MOOCs in early 2012. Wondering how massive a "massive" open online course is? Udacity currently has 250,000 people enrolled in one of its computer science offerings.

When students sign up for an Udacity MOOC, they watch short interactive videos online and take quizzes to make sure they've grasped the material before the next concept is introduced. "There's actually no lecturing in what we do, or very minimal lecturing," said Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun. "It's really all about student exercise. You learn by making your brain go crazy. You don't learn by just listening." In other words, no more dozing off during class.

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To start, San Jose State Plus is offering three classes: entry-level math, college algebra, and elementary statistics. These are classes that are often over-enrolled and create bottlenecks because students must pass them to graduate. The courses are limited to veterans and students in high school at community colleges or at San Jose State. The fee for each class is $150.

That's another benefit of MOOCs -- the cost per student is extremely low. San Jose State professor Ron Rogers, co-instructor for the elementary statistics class, said that the cost of the textbook alone for the same class on campus is $150. The MOOC version of the class requires no textbook.

Students who've enrolled in MOOCs say they like being able to set their own pace for the courses, without concern for the rest of the class. They can move ahead when they're ready and replay videos when the lesson isn't quite sinking in.

This isn't to say that MOOCs are flawless. Dropout rates are high. When a course is offered for free, it's easy to sign up on a whim. When Udacity launched, I signed up for Computer Science 101 only to find myself canceling dentist appointments and skipping gym workouts to try to hand in homework assignments on time. I made it halfway through the eight-week course before I gave in and dropped out. Not a proud moment, but it was either that or poor dental hygiene. To help, San Jose State Plus is adding mentors to the program. Their job? To prod, push, encourage, and provide help for students as needed.

San Jose State Plus came together in record time. It began with a phone call back in June when Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown rang up Thrun and said that California was in a crisis and the state needed his help. Skip ahead seven months, and January 30 marks the debut of the first San Jose State-branded MOOCs.

Thrun isn't done yet, though. He loves the idea of MOOCs helping students get a four-year degree in four years (instead of the average six years currently needed by many) and helping them save tuition fees along the way. But he also has his eye on some other under-served students: "We want to help lots of high school students. We want to level the playing field and even allow inner city students or disadvantaged students to go out into college with as much credit as they can and be as successful as they can be."

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About the author

    Sumi Das has been covering technology since the original dot-com boom. She was hired by cable network TechTV in 1998 to produce and host a half-hour program devoted to new and future technologies. Prior to CNET, Sumi served as a Washington DC-based correspondent, covering breaking news for CNN. She reported live from New Orleans and contributed to CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which earned the network a Peabody Award. She also files in-depth tech stories for BBC News which are seen by a primarily international audience.

     

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