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Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Advanced Course Offerings

Advanced online courses are available in a number of different options, chiefly, dual-enrollment, honors, and courses developed under the Advanced Placement (AP) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.

Dual-enrollment courses, also known as dual-credit courses, give students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school. In developing these courses, providers work with a local college or university to ensure that the courses meet that institution's requirements for students to receive college credit. In some cases, students may choose to take these courses for high school credit only, but those seeking college credit are given additional work (e.g., more writing-intensive assignments) and their performance is evaluated against higher standards (e.g., dual-credit students may be expected to use a greater number of resources or references in a research project). For example, Colorado Online Learning (COL), based in Lakewood, Colo., offers a dual-enrollment option for several of its existing courses. Based on conversations with faculty from Colorado colleges and universities, the program developed an additional set of assignments (and guidelines for the instructor) for those students who want to earn college credit. The course rigor and grading rubric are preapproved by the creditgranting university or college. Should a dual-enrollment student later apply for admission to a different IHE than the one that granted the credits, the second IHE can accept the credits at its discretion.

Honors courses are similar to dual-enrollment courses in that they require students to complete assignments of greater difficulty and often at a faster pace than in regular high school courses. Similarly, they require instructors to evaluate students' work against higher standards. Unlike dual-credit courses, however, completion of an honors course does not result in college credit. Instead, students typically receive additional grade points for passing honors courses, and honors courses are considered to strengthen a student's transcript for college application purposes.

AP courses are intended to give students rigorous content and the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school. Online AP courses are designed by online instructors who adhere to course standards set by the College Board, the not-for-profit membership association that, in addition to operating the AP program, is best known for developing such standardized tests as the SAT. The College Board regularly audits and evaluates AP courses and develops a corresponding exam for each one. Administered every May at designated schools or approved exam sites, the AP exams consist of multiple-choice and free-response (e.g., essays, problem-solving exercises) items. In the month following the exams, more than 4,000 college and AP teachers come together at centralized readings to score the free-response sections. Free-response scores are then combined with multiple-choice scores to form a composite score that ranges between 1 and 5. Most colleges grant credit and advanced placement to students earning a score of 3 or higher. As part of the AP course work they offer, some of the programs highlighted in this guide provide access to the self-paced AP exam reviews from the College Board, which cover course content in test-question format. (An analysis of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS] assessment results suggests that participation in AP mathematics and science courses has enabled U.S. students to exceed the proficiency levels of students from other countries on advanced mathematics and physics tests. 21)

IB courses are offered as part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, a rigorous two-year curriculum (geared primarily to students aged 16 to 19) that leads to a qualification (i.e., degree) that is widely recognized internationally. The Diploma Programme—operated by the IB, a nonprofit education foundation—prepares students for a university education, with a specific focus on helping them develop the ability to communicate with and understand people from other countries and cultures. While the IB program itself is well established internationally, it is not yet as well known or as widely used in the U.S. as the AP program. But when several American-based international schools that are members of the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School (VHS) expressed an interest in an online IB economics course, VHS picked up on it. In 2004, VHS became the first online course provider to pilot an online IB course, in economics. during the two-year pilot phase (i.e., 2004–06), the course was offered entirely online to 11 students at schools in the U.S., Brazil, and Ecuador. The primary goal was to find out whether students could successfully complete an IB course online. Because IB courses are designed to be extremely hands-on and interactive, with emphasis on inquiry, communication, and collaboration, the challenge of delivering them online is to create this same type of experience in a virtual classroom. As it turned out, all 11 students passed the IB economics examination. Promising findings from evaluation surveys of participating students and school leaders resulted in expansion of the pilot, which, for the 2007–08 and 2008–09 school years, will include additional offerings. IB also is considering expanding its online presence by partnering with additional providers, such as Florida Virtual School (FLVS).

Foreign language courses are offered by each of the six online providers highlighted in this guide. In addition to offering such standards as Spanish, French, German, and Latin, a number also offer Mandarin Chinese. VHS developed its Mandarin Chinese course through its partnership with Shekou International School in China and uses native Mandarin-speaking teachers to develop and deliver the course. COL's executive director recently traveled to Beijing, China, to secure a partner in course development, and Michigan Virtual High School (MVS), based in Lansing, Mich., has partnered with Michigan State University and, through it, with the U.S.- China Center for Research on Educational Excellence, to offer Chinese courses that range from beginning to advanced levels. MVS also has developed an Arabic language course.

While it is typical for online language courses to focus on developing students' reading and writing skills, course designers at Johns Hopkins University–Center for Talented Youth (CTY), in Baltimore, are concentrating, in addition, on teaching "productive speech," that is, developing conversational skills. to better develop students' speaking skills, instructors are incorporating more opportunities for students to communicate among themselves and with the instructor both synchronously (i.e., all parties communicating at the same time) via two-way streaming video and asynchronously (i.e., parties communicating at different times) through audio recordings.

A survey of the use of distance education courses offered in public schools during the 2002–03 school year, conducted for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology and released in March, 2005, showed that some 50 percent (approximately 2,700) of responding districts that offered distance learning had students enrolled in AP or college level courses. About one-quarter (23 percent) of all K–12 enrollments in distance education courses (for students regularly enrolled in districts) were taking courses in social studies or social sciences; 19 percent were in English/language arts; 15 percent were in mathematics; 12 percent were in natural or physical sciences; 12 percent were in foreign languages; and 12 percent were in some other unspecified curriculum areas. 22 (See Growing Student Interest in Online Learning)

Such are the variety of online course choices that district or school officials who peruse the catalog from an online provider may be tempted to commit immediately. But thoughtful planning and careful implementation are essential if a district or school is to realize the full potential of online learning to help advance a broad array of students toward high school graduation and success in higher education. Part II of this guide explores key concepts to consider when thinking about introducing advanced courses online.

Growing Student Interest in Online Learning

As is happening nationwide, a number of districts and schools partnering with featured course providers, and therefore studied for this guide, have seen steady growth in students' desire to study advanced courses online. Schoolcraft High School, in suburban Michigan, is a small school, reaching its all-time peak enrollment of 430 students in 2006–07. Prior to offering advanced online courses through the Lansing-based Michigan Virtual High School (MVS), it had bused an average of only one student every five years to another school to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which Schoolcraft could not offer itself due to the lack of resources (i.e., qualified faculty) and enough students to fill one section of an advanced course. Since partnering with MVS in 2002, Schoolcraft has had an average of 3.5 students per year enrolling in online AP courses. Eighteen Schoolcraft students have successfully completed AP courses through MVS and passed the related AP exam.

Fowler High School, a small, rural Colorado school, also began offering online courses five years ago, in 2002, working with Colorado Online Learning (COL), a statewide online course provider. That first year, Fowler had only one student studying online, and that student was taking a core course. But the following year, all 12 of Fowler's budgeted online enrollments were filled, and one of those 12 students was taking a dual-enrollment course (i.e., an advanced course that meets both high school and local Colorado college and university requirements and standards). Last year, four Fowler students took and successfully completed online dual-enrollment courses, and Fowler is budgeting for additional enrollments, with the expectation that interest will continue to grow. (The NCES publication, Dual Credit and Exam-Based Courses in U.S. Public High Schools: 2002–03, reports that 25 percent of the high schools that offer dual-credit courses do so online. 23)

Small schools like Fowler and Schoolcraft, with limited faculty resources and, at least initially, relatively little student interest in advanced courses, may stand to gain the most from the online option. But districts and schools everywhere are turning to online learning for their students. Virtual High School (VHS), based in Maynard, Mass., and working with schools and districts nationwide and, even, internationally, has seen a dramatic increase in enrollment across the board in recent years. The number of schools using VHS courses has increased by 118 percent in the past five years and the number of students by 154 percent. And students are choosing more advanced courses. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of student course enrollments in AP courses through VHS increased from 18 to 497.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS), serving Florida schools statewide, saw AP enrollment more than double between 2003 and 2006,with enrollments rising from 976 to 2,348. The upward trend included a rise in the percentage of minority students taking AP courses online, from 35 percent of all FLVS AP enrollments in 2003 to 43 percent in 2006. By the end of school year 2006–07, approximately 63 percent of the students enrolled in FLVS AP courses had taken the corresponding AP exams.

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009