Is online learning the future of teaching statistics?


  • Author: Carlos Alberto Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 07 January 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

The news these days seem to point that the World Wide Web may not be the best place to receive an intellectual stimulus. And I'm not complaining about my twitter feed, but about the fact that the San Jose State University in California has announced this week that it has significantly scale back on an online initiative signed with the online education provider Udacity. By putting in question a collaboration that seemed to flag the future of education, the public University has raised a few eyebrows on the observers following the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), a term that was coined a few years back to describe the latest trend in distance learning. Now, based on these recent developments, and according to some media, the Internet has failed us all…again.

thumbnail image: Is online learning the future of teaching statistics?

We should be fairly accustomed to the idea of non-traditional, classroom education by now. We've had in the past attempts for mail courses, radio based classes and the venerable audio lessons. But the XXI century brought the digital revolution, which in turn opened the door for online education, a field in which a few companies have flourished recently.

The idea was born from the dreams of Sebastian Thrun, a former Google employee that had the vision of teaching thousands of students at the same time. During his time as professor in Stanford, Thrun recorded some videos for his Artificial Intelligence class, as a way to reinforce the contents of the lessons. In a period of three months, he prepared videos for the entirety of the course, which were then offered online, completely free of charge, along with tools for evaluation and grading. At first, it was an experiment to improve the students’ retention. In the end, over 150.000 persons from all around the world would take this online course, thus igniting a flame that would later become a multi-million dollar company: Udacity.

Udacity offers over two dozen courses, some based in actual University curricula, such as Statistics 101. Each course consists mostly on video lectures, which are accompanied by related quizzes and exercises that help students reinforce the content. Follow-up homework and an automated grading system are also a part of the courses. Udacity is now funded by a few venture capital firms and it has received some awards for its originality and its pure intentions: the idea of giving people a profound education - Harvard at a minimum cost, anywhere in the world. For anyone. The democratization of education at its best.

Sadly, as the people in the San Jose State University now understand, this ideal has not been quiet reached yet. For starters, limited Internet experience and technical glitches tended to be a constant among many students. Then, the limitations inherent to online courses added complications to the program. Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. In fact, just by attending a traditional class, students could increase their chances of approving by more than 50%. And these are not the greater problems that MOOC are struggling with. The big one is the dropout rate, which averages a 90%. Considering that some of those who complete the course will still fail it, the number of participants who actually learn seems quiet disheartening. These statistics have deflated the hype surrounding online education and brought a more thorough light to the matter. Maybe the idea is good but the implementation needs to be somehow changed, strengthened

Udacity itself is now changing. As a private company that is now responsible to investors, they are now focusing on job training courses, more skill oriented and less deep than the initial lessons based on College courses. This is certainly a more profitable strategy, based on a sponsored-course model. Now, other companies (software developers like Autodesk or Cloudera) pay Udacity to produce courses devoted to teach their software and its advantages. Although these resources are certainly valuable, they may seem far from the democratic higher education that was promised when the website was created.

I, personally, wouldn't discard online education as a viable, cheap and progressive route for a higher, more equal education. Yet I wouldn't either argue that we have already reached that point. Just as it has been described, there are still many challenges to overcome. Hopefully, for the sake of education, we will solve them in due time.


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Published features on are checked for statistical accuracy by a panel from the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics (ENBIS)   to whom Wiley and express their gratitude. This panel are: Ron Kenett, David Steinberg, Shirley Coleman, Irena Ograjenšek, Fabrizio Ruggeri, Rainer Göb, Philippe Castagliola, Xavier Tort-Martorell, Bart De Ketelaere, Antonio Pievatolo, Martina Vandebroek, Lance Mitchell, Gilbert Saporta, Helmut Waldl and Stelios Psarakis.