A highly-publicized divorce between MOOC provider Udacity and San Jose State University has ignited critics who charge that the failed partnership exposes the risks and flaws of online education. According to Michael Hiltzik of Los Angeles Times, though online education has many advantages, it cannot be a replacement for on-campus education.
In January 2013 San Jose State University announced plans to enroll up to 300 students in three introductory online courses for a $150 fee, which was a deep discount from the usual cost of more than $2,000.
Two weeks ago the results of the experiment came in — and more than half the students flunked. San Jose’s work with Udacity, the well-funded Silicon Valley start-up that set up the online program, will be suspended for the fall semester — put on “pause,” as the partners say — so the courses can be retooled.
The results showed that only between 20% and 44% of students passed. Although 83% of students completed the courses, the low pass rates raised enough concerns for the school to discontinue both the pilot and the partnership.
Critics said that online education providers are backed by millions of dollars in venture capital and it is not surprising that they are offering services look like the product of a business model more than an educational model. According to critics, that Silicon Valley business model doesn’t deliver on education.
Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and Google fellow, who plans to bring “the very best of higher education to everyone worldwide.” The company launched last year with $20 million in venture funds.
Similarly, Coursera, which was also founded by Stanford faculty members, has raised $65 million in backing, including a chunk from the World Bank.
“As I learn more about the field, it becomes clearer to me that there’s a beautiful value in on-campus education that we cannot and should not replicate or replace,” says Thrun, who holds three diplomas from eminent German universities. “What I am really after is access.”
Online education can serve huge populations of wait-listed students unable to obtain slots on campus, who need to fit college-level education in their spare time from work or family duties, or who are geographically remote.
But many argue that the online model allows universities to save money by employing fewer or less-qualified teachers, which results in a poor quality education for those populations who need it most.
“They think the distribution of information that they’re part of is the same as education, and that’s just not true,” says Christopher Newfield, an English professor at UC Santa Barbara who has been tracking the spread of the online learning mania. “Learning is not the same as watching TV or playing video games.”