Special Report

Advanced Placement Secures Online Niche

By Michelle R. Davis — March 20, 2009 6 min read
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Teacher Dianna L. Miller taught a variety of Advanced Placement courses in Florida for five years, lecturing, demonstrating concepts, and building close relationships with students she’d see every day in class.

Now Miller teaches AP macro- and micro-economics for the Orlando, Fla.-based Florida Virtual School, and she says most of her students have no idea what she looks like. But Miller feels the relationships forged with her virtual students are even stronger than the ones she formed in her face-to-face interactions.

“My [online] students tell me that I know more about them than any of their classroom teachers, but I’ve never even seen them,” she says.

Online Advanced Placement courses, which offer college-level material to high school students, are at the forefront of the online education movement. Their popularity has continued to grow as online instruction has evolved, and as what online educators consider misconceptions about virtual education—such as worries that teachers do not get to know their students well—have increasingly been dispelled. Since about 40 percent of high schools do not provide AP courses, online offerings are a way to level the playing field between bigger and better-off schools and the rural and urban schools that lack such resources.

Some studies have shown that students who take AP courses online do just as well as students who take courses in the traditional way when it comes time to take AP exams, according to Trevor Packer, the vice president of the New York City-based College Board who oversees its Advanced Placement program.

But the growth of online Advanced Placement courses is occurring in what often remains uncharted territory. That may be particularly true in the sciences: Virtual coursemakers and the College Board continue to debate the benefits of the hands-on lab experiences that online learners may forgo.

Online AP courses are especially popular in rural districts, where there often aren’t enough students seeking a course to make it economically feasible to hire a teacher, says Cheryl Vedoe, the president and chief executive officer of the virtual-course provider Apex Learning, based in Seattle.

But a rising number of urban districts are also seeking out the courses for similar reasons, including a lack of highly qualified teachers for the rigorous, college-level courses.

Virtual AP courses “make sure that where a student goes to school does not limit their access” to such coursework, says Robert A. Cole, an instructional technology specialist for the state education department in Maryland, which has a state-run virtual school. Three-quarters of the Maryland Virtual School’s 950 enrollments are for Advanced Placement courses, he says, and the state was recently ranked No. 1 by the College Board for AP performance and participation.


1. Designate someone as an in-house coach or mentor for students taking online Advanced Placement courses, a tactic that is required by some course providers.

2. Determine whether a student will take the course at home or during school hours. If during school hours, schedule a designated place for the student to access the course.

3. Use a high-quality course provider that gives specialized training to its Advanced Placement teachers to help them master online instruction.

4. Evaluate costs to determine whether online Advanced Placement courses can be less expensive than hiring a full-time AP teacher.

5. Check with the College Board to make sure it will provisionally authorize an online AP science course if the course requires laboratory exercises.

Online AP courses can also cost less than face-to-face classes, says Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer for the Florida Virtual School. Birtolo estimates that the school’s AP courses cost $1,000 to $2,000 less per student than traditional Advanced Placement classes, which each require a salaried teacher.

Students who opt for online courses may have scheduling conflicts or want to take courses not offered by their schools, Vedoe of Apex Learning says. A majority of the students taking her company’s AP classes do so during the school day, in a computer lab, for example. But other students are completing similar courses at home in the evenings or on weekends.

Jacob Lauver, a senior at Jupiter Christian School in Jupiter, Fla., is taking three AP courses through the Florida Virtual School this school year. He’s added AP English and macro- and micro-economics to his schedule—classes his school doesn’t offer—because he believes those courses will help him do better in college.

Lauver says he usually works on his online courses in the mornings, at home, since his school schedule doesn’t start until noon. He has also taken some AP courses in the traditional way at his school.

“The difference is that you can do it whenever you want, so it’s more loose,” he says of online learning. “It’s hard [online] sometimes because you can’t talk to your teachers immediately when you have questions,” though he says his virtual teachers are very responsive.

Lauver says students who take online AP courses must be motivated and able to work independently. “If you lose focus, you can get off the pace pretty easily,” he says.

Three years ago, about 13 percent of the roughly 17,000 U.S. schools that offered AP courses had online versions of those courses available for students. This school year, that percentage has risen to 17 percent, says Packer of the College Board. Five percent of those schools say they use AP online courses when they have between three and 10 students interested in a course, and 14 percent say they use virtual AP classes when only one or two students take the course, Packer says.

“The growth is fueled by the same factors fueling the growth of AP in brick-and-mortar schools: Educators are seeking ways to help a greater diversity of students prepare for the rigors of college and to graduate in four years,” he says.

Some students and teachers find virtual AP courses to be more personal and interactive than face-to-face classes. Others say the online courses are more consistent, Packer says.

“There’s a high level of quality of the curriculum, since they’ve been through a lot of review,” he says of online AP classes. “Typically, companies hire only very experienced AP teachers to build these courses, and they’re taught by master AP teachers.”

In addition, many of today’s students find success in computer-based learning, something they feel particularly comfortable with, Packer says. Plus, virtual AP classes allow students to work at their own pace, redo lessons they haven’t mastered, and push forward quickly through material they understand, he says.

Some online AP students also say their grade point averages weren’t high enough to qualify for their in-school AP class offerings, but they still wanted to try the advanced work, says Birtolo of the Florida Virtual School, which offers 10 Advanced Placement courses. In the online environment, such students may feel comfortable asking as many questions as they want without worrying their peers are judging them, or they can get one-on-one tutoring from their virtual teacher.

“We have many students who are new to the AP world,” Birtolo says. “They’re doing it in an online environment because it feels safe to them.”

Still, students must be particularly motivated, because there is no teacher they have to face each day in the classroom, reminding them to turn in their homework, for example.

“The cons [of online AP] are that sometimes a student may find it very hard to persist through a college-level class on their own through the academic year,” Packer says.

Skepticism regarding the effectiveness of virtual teachers and online AP courses remains.

Todd R. Yarch, the principal of voise Academy High School, a new school in the Chicago district that uses digital curricula paired with in-class teachers, says he’s seen students falter with AP courses that featured only a virtual teacher.

“I’ve watched students take AP courses online, and they struggled because they didn’t have somebody right there they could talk to,” he says. A virtual teacher “is not the same, and is not going to break it down the way you need, because they don’t know you.”

Miller, the Florida online educator, agrees that’s a challenge, particularly when it comes to time management. “They have all this homework to do, and I’m not in the classroom saying this is due tomorrow,” she says of her students.

To get around that potential problem, Miller says, she uses frequent telephone tutoring sessions, instant messaging, and e-mails to make sure everyone is keeping up with the work.

Virtual AP providers often require an on-site mentor or coach, Vedoe says.

“We’ve found that even those students who are very self-motivated will benefit and be more successful with someone to touch base with on site,” she says.


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