Administrators LEAD & MANAGE MY SCHOOL
Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Part I
What Online Learning Offers For Those Seeking Advanced Content

You're a high school administrator who has been debating how to better prepare your students for college, and you've been wondering about the possibility of adding some new, higher-level courses. To inform your decision, you and your staff have conducted a thorough appraisal of the current curriculum, including students' access to existing courses and their interest in courses not currently available. You've looked, for example, to see if students have access to all the courses required for admission to the state university system. You've looked at schedules and sequencing to see whether students have multiple opportunities to take advanced courses beyond the baseline university requirements. You've asked your high school counselors and teachers whether they know students who could be performing at higher levels if they were challenged with more rigorous content. You've surveyed students and their parents to find out what additional courses students need or want. You've done all this and more, and what you've learned will help guide your next steps.

For example, if there appears to be great demand for physics or for advanced science courses in general, you may decide to commit your available funding to hiring another highly qualified teacher in that area or sending one or two of your current teachers to receive training to teach advanced courses. If neither of those options is realistic, you may instead seek to establish an arrangement with a local institution of higher education (IHE) to offer the course(s) in some sort of a partnership with your school. Or you may look for another relatively nearby school that is offering the courses you lack, to see if you can arrange for some of your students to take those classes, either by you busing them to the school or by connecting them through videoconferencing, a different form of distance learning.

But what if you cannot locate a school already offering the course or do not have an IHE in your area? What if, in addition to having 20 students who all want to study advanced physics, there are another 10 who want to study 10 different advanced courses?

What if your review suggests that you're already providing a sufficient array of advanced courses but don't have enough sections to accommodate all interested students and, thus, some students are closed out each semester? What if you find that scheduling conflicts are keeping many students from taking desired courses? What if students who have asked for advanced courses also express interest in learning more about the kinds of information technology they are likely to encounter in the world of work?

That's a lot to think about. But for each such question, online learning can offer an answer.

With online learning, districts and schools are not limited to providing only those advanced courses popular enough to ensure full course enrollments (perhaps AP physics or Spanish IV, for example) and, therefore, to warrant committing or training a teacher. With online learning, the individual high school student who wants to study genetics or Arabic can do so. And if a school's AP history teacher can only accommodate 35 of the 45 students who want to take the class, online learning means that the other 10 students do not have to wait another semester or another year to take the course. They can study online.

With online learning, districts and schools can offer important scheduling flexibility to the many students who might need it, whether it's the girl who is trying to fit in extra credits in order to graduate early or the boy who would like to take an additional course but cannot fit it in during the regular school day and needs to leave immediately after his last class to take care of his younger brothers while his parents are at work. Traditional classroom-based courses and those offered through videoconferencing rely on synchronous interaction between students and teacher, requiring all students to show up at a time that is convenient to the school or teacher. In contrast, most online learning programs offer some degree of asynchronous interaction in their courses, which allows students to "attend class" at their convenience, either during or outside the regular school day.

For any student who seeks advanced course work, studying online does more than just offer the sought-after content. It also offers an opportunity to use and become comfortable with the kinds of information technology that are fast becoming an integral element of so many livingwage jobs. For students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are less likely to have access to adequate technology—or help with using it— in their homes, the opportunity to study online using school equipment is especially important.

Thus, while online learning is certainly not the only way to supplement the curriculum with advanced courses, it offers a practical and flexible way to enrich a district's or school's academic program and to offer advanced courses to greater numbers of students, with the added benefit of helping students develop key technology-related skills.

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009