Administrators LEAD & MANAGE MY SCHOOL
Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Preparing and Supporting Students for Advanced Courses

Advanced courses embody higher expectations for student achievement and also may require students to complete substantially more work than in a standard academic course. Many also include projects of greater complexity, such as conducting extensive independent research, gathering data from multiple sources and in multiple formats, and, ultimately, covering a subject in greater depth than a student would be expected to in a standard (i.e., nonadvanced) course. Preparation and support, helpful for all students, are essential for those who may be underperformers at the time they are identified as candidates for advanced courses or express interest.

Preparing students. The rigor of their advanced courses has led four of the six highlighted providers to offer preparatory classes aimed at better ensuring students' success once they sign on for an advanced course. These preparatory courses include pre-AP, study skills, and prerequisite courses, such as algebra. VHS, for example, applied for and received funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Advanced Placement Incentive Program to develop an Online AP Academy. The grant enabled 52 low-income high schools to offer online AP courses and their feeder middle schools to offer online enrichment and pre-AP courses. Intended to ready students like Jamal, in the vignette above, to succeed in AP courses, Online AP Academy's 12 pre-AP courses are developed by vertical teams, made up of those who teach in the same content area, but at successive grade levels. The use of vertical teams helps ensure a seamless transition in learning and skills as students progress through higher grades. In addition to providing rich content, the pre-AP and middle school enrichment courses are designed to teach students study skills and to generate other positive academic habits.

Preparatory Classes Lead Students Onward and Upward

Jamal is a high school sophomore at a large inner-city school in the Northeast. His school is a member of a national virtual high school that offers advanced content courses, such as Advanced Placement (AP) and foreign language classes. Before becoming a member of the virtual school, the district had been unable to provide its students with advanced courses or with much choice in foreign languages. During his freshman year, Jamal was enrolled in an online pre-AP course, which helped prepare him for the rigor of the AP calculus course he now takes.

His calculus course, limited to 25 online students, is designated as an independent study, and he is allowed to use the on-site computer lab during one class period every day. A lab monitor is available to provide technical assistance. Jamal also works on his online homework at home in the evenings. He usually finds at least one of his calculus classmates online at the same time as he is, which is helpful because they can use the classroom chat area to discuss homework and other upcoming assignments. Knowing that the instructor regularly monitors the archived discussions keeps Jamal and his friends on task during their online interaction.

In his end-of-course survey, Jamal said he enjoyed the relatively small class size of his online course and appreciated not having to deal with the typical classroom distractions. Jamal is a shy individual whose initial lack of confidence in his academic skills had kept him from participating in discussions in his school-based classes. He said being in a virtual setting helped him participate more actively in group discussions, which, in turn, helped him feel confident enough to participate more fully in his traditional classes.

One district that is partnering with an online provider to offer advanced high school courses has had all of its middle school students participate in an online course on critical thinking skills, delivered by the same provider. These students are then mentored during their first year in high school with the intent of readying them to start taking AP courses in the 10th grade.

Supporting students. All the provider representatives, district or school site coordinators, and online instructors interviewed for this guide agree that the students most likely to succeed in online courses are self-motivated, bring a take-care-of-business attitude toward completing their course work, and have good time management skills. Such attributes are readily evident in motivated students like Zoe in the p. 38 vignette, Managing Student Expectations and Monitoring Student Progress; they may be less obvious or not as highly developed in disadvantaged or underperforming students who have been actively recruited to online learning in general and advanced course work specifically. Yet irrespective of students' academic history, if students express interest in taking an online advanced course, these highlighted providers and the districts and schools with which they partner will encourage them and, more to the point, will look for ways to support individual students to be successful. At one school in rural Colorado, for example, students who have not already demonstrated motivation in their learning but who want to take an advanced online course first participate in an independent study course under the supervision of the school's site coordinator for online learning; in this way, students practice and are coached in the skills needed for successful online learning. VHS found that one important way of supporting online students is to have instructors start providing feedback to students right away once a course begins. In the program's early stages, VHS instructors would first post grades approximately six weeks after the start of a course, but they learned that six weeks was too late because, by then, many low-performing students could not catch up. Now, VHS instructors post students' grades starting soon after the course begins, and every two weeks, they publish students' grade point averages for site coordinators to review. Two-week monitoring intervals keep students from falling too far behind.

Logistical support. At its most basic, student support starts with making sure that students have adequate time and space to successfully participate in their courses. Several providers recommend that school leaders designate a specific class period in the regular school day during which online students are encouraged to work on their assignments (although not required to, since many students are taking online courses because of needed scheduling flexibility).

Providers of AP courses expressly suggest that AP students be given extra computer access time because for each AP course they take, students typically spend about 15 hours each week on homework outside the school day.

While the flexibility of online courses theoretically allows students to work anywhere and anytime, many students opt to do online course work at school during regular school hours. In Iowa, the majority of online AP students work on their course(s) during the school day. In Michigan, one of the member schools of MVS has two computer labs on campus used exclusively by students taking online courses during the school day. Many students participating in CTY also take their online courses in an on-campus computer lab during the school day. CTY officials believe social interactions with peers are critical elements for development, and online learning allows highly able students to obtain the advanced course work they need without having to leave the school environment.

To help students get their work done, many of the schools partnering with one of the highlighted online providers also give students computer time outside of regular school hours. For example, one Colorado school makes its lab available two evenings a week, as well as on Sunday.

In Florida, one district that has students enrolled in FLVS courses has launched an initiative to place computers in libraries and recreational centers around the community, with the goal of providing students a place to work on their online courses outside of normal school hours if they do not have access to adequate computer resources at home. The plan is for participating schools to refer online students in need of an after-hours computer to one of these local community centers.

Recognizing that having adequate time and space to work means nothing if a student cannot get past the occasional computer glitch, most online providers have a "help desk" for their students. MVS, for example, operates its own help desk, which is open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and on Sunday from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Originally, the help desk was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but after researching peak-time usage, the program determined the most cost-effective hours of operation. MVS officials say they have received no complaints from students or teachers since reducing the help desk hours. Companies that provide the platform, or framework, for running the course software (e.g., Blackboard, eCollege) may offer additional technology support, but partnering districts and schools should consider providing their own technical assistance as well. One district working with COL implemented a tiered-response system, whereby a student experiencing technical difficulty first contacts the site coordinator. If the coordinator cannot resolve the problem, he or she contacts the district's technical support person. If the problem cannot be resolved at that level, the coordinator contacts the program directly. If the program cannot resolve the issue, the problem is escalated to the platform provider.

FLVS's technology department manages the server, computer hardware, and software licensing for schools or districts using FLVS courses, and school site coordinators can call directly to report technical problems. Sometimes, however, students' difficulties can be caused by students' lack of access to appropriate hardware and software at home. The site coordinator at one school contacted local computer retailers and told the managers what the technology requirements are for online courses, in the event that students contacted the stores for equipment upgrades.

Mentors or counselors. Online providers recommend that districts and schools offer students extra support to encourage them to stay engaged and on task. Some high schools try to ensure that these individuals have as much content expertise as possible in the courses students are taking. For example, at Northwood-Kensett Junior-Senior High School in Northwood, Iowa, school leaders assign four teachers to mentor IOAPA students. The teachers are chosen based on the online courses students are taking at any given time. So at one point when students were enrolled in online U.S. government, English language and composition, calculus, and economics, they were mentored by social studies, English, mathematics, and business teachers, respectively. The school's guidance counselor will generally try to schedule an online student for the computer lab during the "offperiod" of his or her mentor teacher so the student can get face-to-face help if needed. When mentors cannot address the student's question, they will suggest e-mailing or calling the online instructor for additional assistance and may enlist the help of the site coordinator to respond to student needs.

Some schools have two kinds of mentors for their online students, a classroom teacher who is available for more substantive questions and a technology- oriented person who stays in the computer lab and is available, minimally, to help with technology-related problems. At some schools, the site coordinator assumes these roles. IOAPA also requires that mentors proctor the course tests at the school site rather than allowing the students to take these assessments online.

In Michigan, which in 2006 became the first state to require that students have experience with online learning prior to high school graduation, 39 the state department of education's pupil accounting rules require that every online student be assigned a mentor. Thus far, most of these mentors have been traditional classroom teachers who are either given extra compensation or freed up for a class period to help online students.

Dearborn Virtual Academy, an MVS member located outside Detroit (and, despite its name, a traditional bricks-and-mortar school), allows only 30 students in a computer lab at any given time and maintains a 1:15 mentor-student ratio by stationing two mentors in each lab. These mentors spend the first week of class ensuring that students know how to navigate their e-mail and course Web sites and then remain available throughout the course for questions or problem solving.

Both site coordinator and mentor positions have been established to help ensure that online students can be successful in their courses. People in these positions must be ready to deal with a wide array of issues, from content questions, which they may or may not be able to answer, to issues of cheating, to a student's failure to actively participate once enrolled because of technical difficulties. In short, these individuals must be prepared to offer student support in many areas.

Many site coordinators also are responsible for providing quarterly and midterm progress reports to parents. For example, COL's director of student services works with districts and schools to provide parents with access to their student's online grade book (see fig. 5 on p. 44). From here, parents can see when assignments have been turned in and, eventually, see the grade for each assignment. Although it doesn't show on this screen shot, the site also has a feature that allows parents to see how much time their students are spending on each assignment.

To specifically support students who are participating in advanced course work, FLVS restructured its offerings so one instructor is qualified to teach the same course at multiple levels. Under this system, for example, an AP English language instructor also can teach an English III honors course. This allows students who might start out in an AP course, but, subsequently, find themselves unable to keep up, to switch to the English III honors course, and continue with an instructor who is familiar with their work, so as to not waste the time or energy they had put into the first course.

School and program leaders interviewed for this guide emphasize the need to provide student support extending beyond that offered by any good online instructor. FLVS, for example, requires regular parent and instructor interaction so parents can monitor student participation and performance, while IOAPA requires on-campus student support from a coordinator. Whatever its specific components, a support system for online learners should touch both environments in which students work: the traditional and the virtual.

Figure 5. Screen Shot of Online Grade Book Used by Colorado Online Learning
Screen Shot of Online Grade Book Used by Colorado Online Learning

Note: Items with double dashes are online exams or quizzes that a student has not yet submitted. Once an exam or quiz has been submitted, a dash turns to an asterisk so the instructor knows to grade it.

Evaluating Student Support

Parents are an important source of information about how well recruitment and support services are received in the field. The FLVS annual survey asks parents about their own level of education, why their children enrolled in online courses, and if they perceive FLVS student services to be helpful. In 2005–06, nearly 5,000 parents completed surveys. Among other things, parents were asked if they thought FLVS guidance counselors were helpful in placing students in the appropriate online courses and acclimating both parents and students to the FLVS environment; of responding parents, 87 percent said their child's guidance counselor was able to address their issues. The other 13 percent responded that services were not very helpful because they were not aware of all the services a guidance counselor provided, such as being able to report student progress and monitoring results.40 FLVS responded by reviewing the current parent information dissemination process and finding areas where information could be improved, elaborated upon, or disseminated more frequently.

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009