Cash-strapped schools are increasingly turning to online delivery of Advanced Placement classes for high school students seeking college credit, a change that could be a boon to students and policymakers by expanding access to high-level instruction without incurring higher costs.
The Princeton, New Jersey-based College Board, which runs AP testing and certifies instructors for the advanced classes, says the number of online students is still small but growing quickly. Online students—about 18,000 total, out of 3 million test-takers—accounted for less than 1 percent of AP exams in May 2010. But the number has been growing by 10 percent annually in recent years, the College Board reports.
Notably, online students appear to be performing as well as their counterparts who receive face-to-face instruction. The mean score for AP’s English language and composition courses was 2.9 for both sets of students; similarly, both groups had a mean score of 2.8 for government and politics exams.
“We see virtually no difference in mean AP scores between students who took the AP course online and students who took it in a brick-and-mortar classroom,” said Jennifer Topiel, director of communications for The College Board in New York.
Expanded Access ‘Huge’
The trend comes as no surprise to Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for Kentucky Virtual Schools. The organization has been providing classes online since 1999 and started delivery of AP classes a year later. The move proved popular with rural schools that lacked the resources to provide the classes to their top students.
“One of the reasons we started online delivery of courses was because many of our schools couldn’t offer AP classes,” Gross said. “They didn’t have the teachers who were trained, they didn’t necessarily have the capacity, and they may not have had enough students interested. It wasn’t feasible for schools to offer AP classes.”
That expanded access is “huge,” says Bill Tucker, executive director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“Particularly the rural schools, there’s no other way to do it,” Tucker said. “They’re not going to have the resources of a suburban school.”
Tucker said online AP courses share other advantage of online learning—students can go at their own pace and receive personalized instruction that’s often not available in a traditional classroom. And some students just fit better in an online classroom.
Quality Still Matters
But Tucker cautions the similar AP scores of traditional and online students shows computerized learning isn’t necessarily an upgrade. Student learning often depends on the quality of instruction, and that’s true no matter whether the class is held in a building or in cyberspace.
“Just because it’s online doesn’t mean the quality of instruction doesn’t matter,” Tucker said. “We shouldn’t think because it’s online that it’s magically good.”
Cost Remains a Concern
The College Board says variations in learning might be smoothed out, however, because AP requires all instructors—online or traditional—to go through the same process of certification and syllabi approval.
In Kentucky, Gross says, the financial advantages of delivering AP courses online are counterbalanced by the fact somebody still has to pick up the bill. Some districts pay the tab—around $300 per course—while others make students pay. Some students and their families can afford the cost, and there can be financial assistance in some cases.
“That can be a hardship for some students, or for some schools. Cost is always going to be an issue, no matter how low it is,” Gross said, noting recession-era austerity makes it unlikely more funding is forthcoming.
“The only obstacle is making sure we have enough funding to pay salaries to the teachers involved,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s no money out there.”
Self-Motivation Seen as Crucial
Education observers shouldn’t be surprised when online students perform as well as their brick-and-mortar peers, Gross added.
“Students now are so focused on online activities, [they] do it without thinking. We think there are many students who perform at higher levels using an online system,” she said.
“These students have to be self-motivated,” Gross explained. “There’s no teacher in the room with them. It takes a certain kind of student to be successful.”
Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.