Online Learning | Feature

Online Learning Takes AP Anywhere

Online Advanced Placement courses give underserved overachievers a chance to expand their educational horizons (and save on college).

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's November 2012 digital edition.

An Advanced Placement course could mean the difference between getting into an Ivy League college or settling for something less, between offering students a bright future or stifling their potential. Yet many students attend high schools where AP courses are either not available or in very short supply. The need is particularly dire in rural and urban school districts where advanced expertise and financial resources are limited.

At the same time, demand for AP courses is growing, with nearly one-third of U S public high school students taking an AP exam at some point in high school, according to the Maryland-based College Board, which manages the national AP program. The demand is fueled by competitive college admission requirements, rising college costs, and a complex global economy that requires a more intellectually sophisticated workforce.

So how can states and school districts expand AP access to all students, regardless of geography or socioeconomic circumstances? Many are turning to online AP courses to level the playing field.

An Advancing Trend
In 2011, only about 0.5 percent of AP classes were completed online, according to a Wall Street Journal report. However, the number of online courses being offered is growing. Many students are accessing the services through online schools now available in 27 states. Florida Virtual School, for example, is state-sponsored and offers free AP classes to residents. Others, like Idaho Digital Learning Academy, Colorado Online Learning, and Illinois Virtual School, charge anywhere from $75 to $250 per class.

Some schools and districts are also forming district consortia to provide AP and other online courses. (See "Going the Distance" on page TK for an example.) The Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) is one of six Regional Educational Service Centers in the state of Connecticut. It offers AP online courses to 35 school districts in the Hartford area through the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. The consortium contracts with the non profit Virtual High School to provide member districts with online instruction. Districts can enroll directly with VHS, but the consortium allows them to receive the company 's 18 AP courses at a discounted price.

"It's worked very well for us, and we're looking to extend it even further as more children come on board with online learning," says Gio Koch, recruitment coordinator for CREC. "It really gives students a 21st century experience. It's laid out like a college course so they get that experience on a high school level."

Many schools also offer AP classes through private companies like Apex Learning and Aventa Learning, whose parent company is K 12 Inc.  "With the budget impact and constrained resources, we 've seen an increase in demand for providing AP courses in both blended and virtual environments to meet student needs," says Apex spokeswoman Teri Citterman. "The use of online AP courses has held a steady, upward trend for more than 10 years."

Districts can enroll students in individual Apex Learning courses for $200 per student, with unlimited course enrollments. Districts or parents can also enroll students in a full-time virtual school called Apex Learning High School for $350 per semester course.

Aventa also offers a range of choices from full-time programs to single classes, which vary in price depending on the number of enrollments and the degree of hosting, instruction, and training required. David Pelizzari, vice president of content and curriculum at K 12 , says that his recent analysis of Aventa 's AP Chemistry courses showed a fivefold enrollment increase compared to 2011-2012 --and that 's just one course.

"Our AP offering targets exactly the same student demographic as that in conventional brick-and-mortar schools, with one happy twist," he says. "Because of our virtual way of getting the courses to the students, we can target 'AP loners' (so to speak) who are single students, or small clusters of students, who might not have sufficient numbers in a conventional brick-and-mortar school to justify the school offering of an AP curriculum.

"That said, all these students match the usual AP profile of hard working, over achieving eager learners who see higher education in their future."

How it Works
The format may vary from state to state, depending on the provider of the content. In almost every iteration, students access instruction, complete lessons, and take exams online, either independently or under the supervision of teachers in a blended learning environment. The student- teacher interaction classes can be asynchronous, using chat or IM technologies, or synchronous, where communication happens typically through e-mail or bulletin board discussions.

"Many people assume that online learning is eithera sort of filmed version of a traditional classroom, or a textbook thrown up on a computer screen," says Pelizzari. "But in actuality it's a combination of available media, structured upon the armature of a carefully sequenced syllabus.

"Imagine a solidly written, richly illustrated, and well-designed textbook --but one where every image, graph, illustration, diagram, and how-to explanation comes alive through animation, audio, video, and other interactive sequencing, and you're close," he says, describing Aventa's offering. "If you think of the way newspapers and news channels exist online now, where any individual story has embedded layers of video, graphics, diagrams, and interactive features that you can click to explore and understand, then you're getting closer."

The Rural Dilemma
In the state of Iowa, where 98 percent of schools are rural, school administrators faced a dilemma. While students in urban schools had wide access to AP courses, the rural schools were smaller and didn't always have enough AP students to justify the cost of providing the courses. In other cases, schools lacked qualified personnel to teach rigorous, college-level material. So the state had to find a solution.

"Iowa students test well and there's ability out there, but because we're a very rural state, the courses were limited," says Clar Baldus, administrator for arts and innovation at the University of Iowa's Belin-Blank Center, an international center for gifted education. "Rural students didn't have the same advantages as their urban counterparts, which wasn't fair."

To solve the problem, the center used a $1.6 million grant to launch the Iowa Online Advanced Placement Academy (IOAPA). The academy, which opened in 2001, provides equal access to AP courses through Apex. It now serves 350 schools across the state, spread over 99 counties.

"Our focus has been on looking for challenging coursework for students who need additional acceleration," says Baldus, the academy's most recent project administrator. "AP is a really efficient form of acceleration in high school because it differentiates the curriculum to a college level for those students who are ready for more."

Through the academy, schools are invited to enroll students for AP courses not available at their locations. Students are taught by an online Apex teacher, but there is also a site coordinator and mentor in each school building to provide help when needed. During the summer, the academy trains teachers on how to teach AP classes.

Since the academy launched, 10,479 students have participated in IOAPA courses, according to a 2001-2012 program summary. Completion and passing rates are between 89 and 96 percent each year, and 564 teachers have received grants for AP teacher training.

In 2010, 65.4 percent of Iowa students taking College Board AP exams scored 3 or higher, placing the state sixth in the nation and well above the 62 percent national average.

"What we attribute our high completion and passing rates to is the way our schools pay attention to the online students," Baldus says. "To take the coursework, the student needs to have a period in the day that's dedicated to that course. So it's like a regular class for them."

The logistical support that schools offer includes time and space for the student to do the coursework. That may mean extra computer access during the school day. Some schools even make labs available one or two evenings a week and on Sundays, and provide a help desk either through the online provider or the school.

Urban Demand
Even school districts with robust on-site AP programs are adding online offerings. Alexandria City Public Schools in Alexandria, VA , offers about 25 non-virtual AP classes. But the course list doesn't include specialized classes like AP Human Geography, AP Chinese, AP Comparative Government, or AP Art History.

So in 2007, district administrators added more courses through the state-run Virtual Virginia online program and Aventa Learning. There are now more than 1,000 students enrolled in the program. They use laptops supplied by the school as part of a district wide technology program. Most of the learning takes place in dedicated online learning classrooms, where mentors are available to help the students during the school day. Virtual teachers communicate with the students via video chat, online meeting rooms, Blackboard messaging, and other applications.

According to Mary Fluharty, the district's coordinator of online learning, the program has helped students expand their horizons. Two years ago, she says, an incoming ninth-grader wanted to take an AP European History course. The subject had become a hobby and he felt he could handle the work. After consulting with his parents and guidance counselor, the district allowed him to take AP European History through Aventa.

"It was interesting because one of the things with ninth-graders often times is the notion of time management as younger kids taking online courses," Fluharty says. "But he very quickly, I think, felt empowered by this trust and confidence we had in him to be able to do it."

At the end of the year, the student took the AP exam and scored a 5. Fluharty says he's a success story that shows that, when given the opportunity to stretch their knowledge base, many students can rise to the occasion.

"Just to be able to give the students that kind of flexibility is empowering to them," Fluharty says. "A lot of kids are required to take an online course when they go to college, and this prepares them for what they will face. The time management piece, as well as the use of technology, is something that's going to give them lifelong skills."