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Lack of experience, technical issues hurt S.J. State online program

September 12, 2013|By Carla Rivera

Limited Internet experience, email glitches and confusing websites hampered many students struggling to pass online classes in a San Jose State University experiment that produced mixed results, a new report found.

The findings are in a newly released study, funded by the National Science Foundation, that attempts to tackle what worked and what didn’t for students in two math classes and a statistics class offered by the university last spring in collaboration with the online provider Udacity.

The highly watched project, which offers low-cost, for-credit online courses, was put on hold for the fall after more than half of the participants failed the classes. Students who took the classes in a summer program performed better, but the latest research suggests that more improvements are needed.

A survey of participants found that 39% had never previously taken an online course. Fewer than half the students knew that support services were available online if they needed help.

The students used the Udacity website for coursework and exams but weren’t aware that grades would be posted on the San Jose website, the report said.

In addition, many students were left in the dark because emails failed to reach them, according to the study.

“Before the exam [the email] would go to my spam and then the day before the exam they told me I never registered because I did not know about it,” one student commented. “I could not take the exam.”

Because of the complications, researchers weren’t able to determine whether more contact with instructors and other staff would help students succeed. Some of the problems were resolved as the semester progressed, but the report said more study of support services is warranted.

The report was conducted by the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges in association with San Jose State.

Researchers conceded many limitations, including the sample size -- only 274 students enrolled in the classes and 213 are represented in the data.

In addition, the research was launched after the courses had begun and there were delays in obtaining resources and data from Mountain View-based Udacity, according to the report.

A representative for Udacity could not be reached for comment. But a blog post on the for-profit group’s website took issue with that part of the study.

“To us, the process of working with the RP Group and SJSU was constructive, professional, and expedient,” the post said. “In fact, Udacity prioritized these data requests over most other activities in the company.“

Other findings were not surprising: the students who made the most effort --completing assignments and watching lectures -- were more likely to pass.

Disadvantaged students and those in remedial classes fared the worst. Those findings, while not unexpected, raise the question of whether the online format is suited to those most in need of academic support.

“Because of the limited nature of the study I don’t think we can really say anything definitive about that, but there’s certainly a  body of research out there on similar projects that would indicate at-risk students are less successful in this type of course,”  Elaine D. Collins,  associate dean of the College of Science and the study’s principal investigator, said Thursday. “It’s unlikely that one method is going to solve all of the problems and that it’s going to be a combination of different approaches.”


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