New Company Hopes To Score Big With Online Advanced Placement Courses
Eric Delaney knew his first online course—an Advanced Placement U.S. government offering he took last fall—would be a new kind of experience for him.
But the senior, a top student at Marceline (Mo.) High School, didn't expect it would be so tough, and he was taken aback by the score on his first essay: 38 out of 50.
"That doesn't happen real often," Mr. Delaney, 18, recently said of the low mark, which put his perfect 4.0 grade point average at risk.
He recovered by semester's end. But the course, he said, was unlike the usual fare at Marceline High, a 210-student school that offers only one AP course of its own, in calculus. Looking back, he said the online study gave him a taste of the academic demands he expects to face in college.
Mr. Delaney is now taking an AP course in microeconomics online from the same company offering the government course—Apex Learning Inc.
Started in 1998 with a major investment from Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft Corp., Apex has quickly become the most-talked-about player in the expanding niche of online Advanced Placement instruction.
Nationwide, Apex's current four courses—calculus, statistics, government, and microeconomics—are in about 100 schools this year. That number is expected to increase dramatically as the Bellevue, Wash.-based company launches additional courses and begins a broad marketing drive.
Apex recently formed a partnership with Edison Schools Inc., the prominent school management company, and one of its financial backers, which will use Apex's courses and online professional development for Edison's teachers. And it agreed to a marketing deal with Kaplan Educational Centers, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co., in which the two companies will sell Apex's AP exam-review materials under a joint brand in the consumer market.
An Attractive Niche
Apex's online competitors include several nonprofit, university-based programs; PA Homeschoolers Inc., a family business based in Kittanning, Pa., that offers 12 AP courses for home schoolers; and Class.com, a for-profit venture owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Class.com's courses aren't aligned specifically to AP tests, but they are taught at an advanced level.
One reason for the growing interest in online Advanced Placement courses is that many students lack access to such coursework in their schools. Over 40 percent of the nation's high schools offer no AP courses, according to the College Board, the New York City- based nonprofit organization that owns and governs the exams.
Advanced Placement courses, generally recognized as having greater depth than standard high school curricula, are intended to prepare students to take AP exams. Colleges and universities award credit for a high score on the exams.
But many high schools find it difficult or impossible to hire qualified teachers in AP subjects; others say they can't afford to pay for classes that might be attended by only a handful of students.
"We allow schools to incrementally add high-quality classroom experiences, one student at a time," Bryan Barnett, Apex's chief academic officer, said.
The company's courses have been warmly received in its home state of Washington, said Larry E. Norwood, the project coordinator of the state's Internet-based-curriculum grants project.
Mr. Norwood is overseeing the distribution of $500,000 in state money over two years to support purchases of online AP courses. More than 300 students at 53 schools statewide are participating this year; about 80 percent of the students are using Apex courses, which costs $395 per semester course per student.
"Apex started out with a pretty good price and an excellent product, and they've been able to corner a great share of that market," Mr. Norwood said.
The company's formula starts with providing an experienced AP teacher for each online class. Enrollment is capped at 25 students, who can be located at schools anywhere in the world.
Lessons draw on sophisticated tutoring software, students' research on the Internet, and online discussions, as well as conventional textbooks and other readings. An Apex teacher e-mails students daily assignments and weekly progress reports, which are also sent to the school and the students' parents.
Apex also provides versions of its courses that allow schools to use their own teachers, as well as review packages that prepare students for particular AP exams.
Marceline High's relationship with Apex began last spring, when four seniors took the online government course from a teacher in Walla Walla, Wash. The school paid a reduced tuition rate because it agreed to be a pilot-test site.
The online option gives the small, rural school a way to offer advanced courses for some of its best students, said Melody Potter, a guidance counselor who oversees the experiment. "It's hard to be able to justify teaching a section with two kids in it," she said.
School officials got really interested after last May's AP test results came out. All four students in the online government course scored at least a 3 out of 5—high enough to earn college credit, Ms. Potter said. In four years, the school's own AP-level calculus course has yet to produce a single such score.
Marceline's experience was mirrored in other high schools that participated in Apex's small trial. Of the total 40 students who completed the company's courses last year, 37 took AP exams, and 31 earned a 3, 4, or 5.
Jamey T. Fitzpatrick, the vice president for development and educational policy of Michigan Virtual University in Lansing, Mich., believes Apex could play a key role in improving the participation of the state's students in AP tests. Currently, 45 percent of Michigan's high schools don't have access to Advanced Placement curricula.
"That's a significant equity issue in this state," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "One of the most economical ways to try to increase that number is to create alternate delivery vehicles."
MVU, a state-supported economic-development organization, is now marketing Apex courses to Michigan schools; it collects a fee for every school that signs up.
Online AP courses aren't for everyone, Mr. Barnett said, noting that about 22 percent of the students who start an Apex course do not finish it. But he underscored that the schools themselves must pitch in by tracking their students' progress.
"It's easy [for students] to subordinate an online course" to other classwork, he said, "because their regular teachers see them every day."
Vol. 19, Issue 23, Page 13