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

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 US 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

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In 2011, only about 0.5 percent of AP classes were completed online, according to a Wall Street Journal However, the number of online courses 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 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 48 for an example.) The Capitol 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 nonprofit 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, end 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 K12 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 K12, 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 hardworking, overachieving 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 either a 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 offerings. "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."

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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 weak 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 districtwide 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 oftentimes 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 knowledgebase, 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."

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RELATED ARTICLE: Going the distance: how one district is using distance learning to bolster both course offerings and enrollment in two of its high schools.

For years, the Red Clay Consolidated School District in Delaware, where I serve as distance learning coordinator, has offered a select number of AP and specialty courses to our high school students. While it has always been the district's intention to provide students with as many enrichment opportunities as possible before their college or professional careers begin, expanding these classes has always posed something of a problem. A popular AP course offered at one school, for example, may not exist at its sister school across town. Even when instructors can be found, too few interested students might mean the course never gets off the ground.

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When our students enter higher education, they are increasingly collaborating through online learning technologies such as learning management systems and video lessons. Knowing this spurred our district to consider using these technologies ourselves, especially in those classes designed to prepare students for the rigors of college.

To this end, Red Clay began offering students in two of our secondary schools--the Conrad School of Science and Technology and Alexis I. du Pont High School--access to AP and other low-enrollment courses via videoconference in the 2011-2012 school year. Now in its second year, the program conferences students in to a traditional in-person class at the corresponding school using a suite of technologies provided by Cisco that we used to outfit each school's distance-learning lab. The sure includes the following:

* Two 72-inch Samsung LCD TV Series 450 monitors in the front of the lab

* Front and rear high definition Cisco Integrator Package C90 Precision HD (1080p 12X) video cameras (for broadcast mode), with video output through the Extron Signal Processing Control Program

* Epson Powerlite Pro projectors

* Three-tiered student seating with 24 ergonomically correct swiveled chairs and student work space

* Shura SIX wireless microphones placed throughout student work area

* Twenty-four Dell laptops with Windows 7 Professional (Intel 4.0GB) and wireless internet connection

* SMART Technologies 685ix and D685ix interactive whiteboards

* SMART document scanner/camera and SMART Notebook collaborative learning software

* Teacher podium with Extron touchpad controls for all equipment

We began the program with 114 students in grades 10 to 12 across both schools, not all of whom participated in the videoconferencing. Of the total number of students enrolled, 47 received the broadcast from the partnering school (41 percent), with the remainder attending the in-person class with the teacher. This year, we've enrolled 148 students, with a similar distribution of in-person and broadcast students.

One of our primary considerations in choosing which courses to offer was to provide students with an expanded number of AP courses, to help give them a head start in their college careers and, we hoped, some financial savings. In the first year of the program, teachers at the Conrad School of Science and Technology broadcasted their World History AP, Comparative Government AP, and Sociology courses to students at Alexis I. du Pont High School. Returning the favor, teachers at Alexis I. du Pont High school offered classes to Conrad students that included Statistics AP, Legal Process, Military History, and Accounting. Teachers and students at both schools used Blackboard's Edline Course Management System platform, which made collaboration much easier and provided students with 24/7 online access to all course materials.

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Working for Students

In order to receive college credit for an AP course, students must score at least a three (out of five) on an exit exam. In the first year of the program, almost 59 percent of students scored a three or higher.

Through an agreement with Delaware Technical Community College, students may also receive college credit for the successful completion of the Sociology course, not otherwise an AP course. More than 88 percent of the students enrolled in the 2011 Sociology course received college credit. Furthermore, the collaboration tools used in this program--discussion boards, blogs, wikis, web conferencing, video chat sessions, the Edline LMS--are the same tools used by many colleges and universities.

Tami Soltow, who teaches the Legal Process class as part of the program, incorporates many of the available technology tools and features into the learning strategies of her classes.

"Students truly get a realistic approach into the communication and collaboration tools currently being used in the business community," she says. "In our classes, we have conducted mock trials using videoconferencing and utilized the technology to conduct legal research projects." Soltow also introduces her students to academic uses of Google Docs and even Gchat in an effort to expose students to the structure and technologies they will experience in their college careers.

Students, too, have been instrumental in providing program leaders with formative feedback throughout the school year. Showing how adaptable they are to shifts in technology for learning, students have told us via videos, blogs, and tech-rich presentations how they enjoyed the flexibility their distance learning courses provided, the convenience of completing and submitting projects online, and the opportunity to connect with their peers across the district. Their feedback has led to an expansion of the program, currently planned for the 2013-14 school year, to include additional courses and at least two other schools in the district.

Overall, we feel confident that the program is doing far more than giving students an opportunity to earn college credit before graduation. As one student told us during the feedback process, "Many of the students see the distance learning program as more than a textbook and classroom; it becomes a community of 21st century learners."

Joseph Rapposelli is the distance learning coordinator for the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Alva James-Johnson is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
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Title Annotation:ONLINE LEARNING
Author:James-Johnson, Alva
Publication:T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2012
Words:2721
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