SAN JOSE, Calif. — Dazzled by the potential of free online college classes, educators are now turning to the gritty task of harnessing online materials to meet the toughest challenges in American higher education: giving more students access to college, and helping them graduate on time.
Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes. That early detour can be costly, leading many to drop out, often in heavy debt and with diminished prospects of finding a job.
Meanwhile, shrinking state budgets have taken a heavy toll at public institutions, reducing the number of seats available in classes students must take to graduate. In California alone, higher education cuts have left hundreds of thousands of college students without access to classes they need.
To address both problems and keep students on track to graduation, universities are beginning to experiment with adding the new “massive open online courses,” created to deliver elite college instruction to anyone with an Internet connection, to their offerings.
While the courses, known as MOOCs, have enrolled millions of students around the world, most who enroll never start a single assignment, and very few complete the courses. So to reach students who are not ready for college-level work, or struggling with introductory courses, universities are beginning to add extra supports to the online materials, in hopes of improving success rates.
Here at San Jose State, for example, two pilot programs weave material from the online classes into the instructional mix and allow students to earn credit for them.
“We’re in Silicon Valley, we breathe that entrepreneurial air, so it makes sense that we are the first university to try this,” said Mohammad Qayoumi, the university’s president. “In academia, people are scared to fail, but we know that innovation always comes with the possibility of failure. And if it doesn’t work the first time, we’ll figure out what went wrong and do better.”
In one pilot program, the university is working with Udacity, a company co-founded by a Stanford professor, to see whether round-the-clock online mentors, hired and trained by the company, can help more students make their way through three fully online basic math courses.
The tiny for-credit pilot courses, open to both San Jose State students and local high school and community college students, began in January, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. But early signs are promising, so this summer, Udacity and San Jose State are expanding those classes to 1,000 students, and adding new courses in psychology and computer programming, with tuition of only $150 a course.
San Jose State has already achieved remarkable results with online materials from edX, a nonprofit online provider, in its circuits course, a longstanding hurdle for would-be engineers. Usually, two of every five students earn a grade below C and must retake the course or change career plans. So last spring, Ellen Junn, the provost, visited Anant Agarwal, an M.I.T. professor who taught a free online version of the circuits class, to ask whether San Jose State could become a living lab for his course, the first offering from edX, an online collaboration of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ms. Junn hoped that blending M.I.T.’s online materials with live classroom sessions might help more students succeed. Dr. Agarwal, the president of edX, agreed enthusiastically, and without any formal agreement or exchange of money, he arranged for San Jose State to offer the blended class last fall.
The results were striking: 91 percent of those in the blended section passed, compared with 59 percent in the traditional class.
“We’re engineers, and we check our results, but if this semester is similar, we will not have the traditional version next year,” said Khosrow Ghadiri, who teaches the blended class. “It would be educational malpractice.”
It is hard to say, though, how much the improved results come from the edX online materials, and how much from the shift to classroom sessions focusing on small group projects, rather than lectures.
Finding better ways to move students through the start of college is crucial, said Josh Jarrett, a higher education officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in the past year has given grants to develop massive open online courses for basic and remedial courses.
“For us, 2012 was all about trying to tilt some of the MOOC attention toward the more novice learner, the low-income and first-generation students,” he said. “And 2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students can get credit. While some low-income young adults can benefit from what I call the free-range MOOCs, the research suggests that most are going to need more scaffolding, more support.”
Until now, there has been little data on how well the massive online courses work, and for which kinds of students. Blended courses provide valuable research data because outcomes can easily be compared with those from a traditional class. “The results in the San Jose circuits course are probably the most interesting data point in the whole MOOC movement,” Mr. Jarrett said.
Said Dr. Junn, “We want to bring all the hyperbole around MOOCs down to reality, and really see at a granular level that’s never before been available, how well they work for underserved students.”
Online courses are undeniably chipping at the traditional boundaries of higher education. Until now, most of the millions of students who register for them could not earn credit for their work. But that is changing, and not just at San Jose State. The three leading providers, Udacity, EdX and Coursera, are all offering proctored exams, and in some cases, certification for transfer credit through the American Council on Education.
Last month, in a controversial proposal, the president pro tem of the California Senate announced the introduction of legislation allowing students in the state’s public colleges and universities who cannot get a seat in oversubscribed lower-level classes to earn credit for faculty-approved online versions, including those from private vendors like edX and Udacity.
And on Wednesday, San Jose State announced that next fall, it will pay a licensing fee to offer three to five more blended edX courses, probably including Harvard’s “Ancient Greek Heroes” and Berkeley’s “Artificial Intelligence.” And over the summer, it will train 11 other California State campuses to use the blended M.I.T. circuits course.
Dr. Qayoumi favors the blended model for upper-level courses, but fully online courses like Udacity’s for lower-level classes, which could be expanded to serve many more students at low cost. Traditional teaching will be disappearing in five to seven years, he predicts, as more professors come to realize that lectures are not the best route to student engagement, and cash-strapped universities continue to seek cheaper instruction.
“There may still be face-to-face classes, but they would not be in lecture halls,” he said. “And they will have not only course material developed by the instructor, but MOOC materials and labs, and content from public broadcasting or corporate sources. But just as faculty currently decide what textbook to use, they will still have the autonomy to choose what materials to include.”
While San Jose State professors decided what material should be covered in the three Udacity math courses, it was Udacity employees who determined the course look and flow — and, in most cases, appeared on camera.
“We gave them lecture notes and a textbook, and they ‘Udacified’ things, and wrote the script, which we edited,” said Susan McClory, San Jose State’s developmental math coordinator. “We made sure they used our way of finding a common denominator.”
The online mentors work in shifts at Udacity’s offices in nearby Mountain View, Calif., waiting at their laptops for the “bing” that signals a question, and answering immediately.
“We get to hear the ‘aha’ moments, and these all-caps messages ‘THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU,’ ” said Rachel Meltzer, a Stanford graduate and mentor who is starting medical school next fall.
The mentors answer about 30 questions a day, like how to type the infinity symbol or add unlike fractions — or, occasionally, whether Ms. Meltzer is interested in a date. The questions appear in a chat box on-screen, but tutoring can move to a whiteboard, or even a live conversation. When many students share confusion, mentors provide feedback to the instructors.
The San Jose State professors were surprised at the speed with which the project came together.
“The first word was in November, and it started in January,” said Ronald Rogers, one of the statistics professors. “Academics usually form a committee for months before anything happens.”
But Udacity’s approach was appealing.
“What attracted us to Udacity was the pedagogy, that they break things into very small segments, then ask students to figure things out, before you’ve told them the answer,” said Dr. Rogers, who spends an hour a day reading comments on the discussion forum for students in the worldwide version of the class.
Results from the pilot for-credit version with the online mentors will not be clear until after the final exams, which will be proctored by webcam.
But one good sign is that, in the pilot statistics course, every student, including a group of high school students from an Oakland charter school, completed the first, unproctored exam.
“We’re approaching this as an empirical question,” Dr. Rogers said. “If the results are good, then we’ll scale it up, which would be very good, given how much unmet demand we have at California public colleges.”
Any wholesale online expansion raises the specter of professors being laid off, turned into glorified teaching assistants or relegated to second-tier status, with only academic stars giving the lectures. Indeed, the faculty unions at all three California higher education systems oppose the legislation requiring credit for MOOCs for students shut out of on-campus classes. The state, they say, should restore state financing for public universities, rather than turning to unaccredited private vendors.
But with so many students lacking access, others say, new alternatives are necessary.
“I’m involved in this not to destroy brick-and-mortar universities, but to increase access for more students,” Dr. Rogers said.
And if short videos and embedded quizzes with instant feedback can improve student outcomes, why should professors go on writing and delivering their own lectures?
“Our ego always runs ahead of us, making us think we can do it better than anyone else in the world,” Dr. Ghadiri said. “But why should we invent the wheel 10,000 times? This is M.I.T., No. 1 school in the nation — why would we not want to use their material?”
There are, he said, two ways of thinking about what the MOOC revolution portends: “One is me, me, me — me comes first. The other is, we are not in this business for ourselves, we are here to educate students.”