Despite bad press, Udacity founder says he’s found the ‘magic formula’ for online education

It hasn’t been a great few months for massive open online classes (or MOOCs), particularly those offered by the Silicon Valley startup Udacity. In July, San Jose State University, which had announced a partnership with the company amid much hoopla, said that it was taking a “short breather” from the project given disappointing outcomes among students enrolled in the online Udacity classes.
Still, in an interview this week with Information Week, Udacity founder, Stanford professor and Google Fellow Sebastian Thrun seemed to be all smiles.
“The thing I’m insanely proud of right now is I think we’ve found the magic formula,” he said.
It certainly doesn’t sound that way, given the data released on the San Jose State project: According to reports leaked to Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Ed, students enrolled in the Udacity classes passed at rates between 29 and 51 percent, compared to a passing rate of 74 percent among students in traditional, in-person classes.
But Thrun told Information Week that the data was published “in an incomplete form, with a very strong bias.” He explained that Udacity had actively recruited inner-city high school students and “kids you normally don’t see in college,” including those who had failed remedial math, and the pass rate among those students was 29 percent. Despite the lower pass rate, he said the completion rate was more than 80 percent, which is significantly higher than the typical completion rates bandied about for MOOCs.
In the past few months, MOOCS, which quickly captured the nation’s imagination thanks to startups Udacity and Coursera and the nonprofit edX, have drawn more criticism from university professors and faculty members. So the academic world will continue to closely watch the Udacity project at San Jose State, as well as the startup’s online degree with Georgia Tech. But while Thrun said he can’t release the numbers for San Jose State and Udacity’s summer term, he told Information Week that he expects the pass rate to be over 50 percent.