Online and digital learning have become such an integral part of the modern educational landscape that, according to the 2015 edition of the Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning report, nearly all public school districts use some form of online learning.

One of the appeals of online learning is that a single online instructor can teach students from different schools, states, and even countries. Since schools nationwide have faced deep cuts in funding, this approach allows schools to offer an enriched curriculum through shared resources. That, in turn, also eliminates the issue of how to provide for classes that serve only a small numbers of students such as Advanced Placement® (AP®) courses.

The Keeping Pace report confirms that supplemental courses (AP®, credit recovery, electives, dual enrollment, etc.) constitute most of the online courses used by public school districts. In fact, between the supplemental online courses offered by state virtual schools and sold by private companies to districts nationwide, the report estimates there were a total of 4.5 million supplemental online course enrollments during the 2014-15 school year.

The Appeal of Advanced Placement®

AP® courses are particularly appealing to schools because the courses yield multiple benefits for students. Like other electives, these courses give students an opportunity to delve into topics that truly interest them (albeit at a college-level rigor), increasing their engagement, cultivating their love of learning, and potentially serving as a launching pad for their future academic career.

Students with AP® scores on their transcripts often gain favorable attention from college admissions and financial aid officers. This is with good reason, as the College Board reports that students who earn a 3 or better on one or more of the AP® exams generally graduate from college at higher rates and earlier than non-AP® students1. Many public colleges and universities award course credit for a score of 4 or 5 on AP® exams; those credits can reduce the number of college classes students take and consequently, the amount of tuition they pay.

Schools have a great deal of incentive to increase student options by offering AP® classes. Offering online AP® courses help schools and districts exponentially expand their catalog while helping address scheduling, resource, and budget issues.

Online AP® Increasing Options

Holly Area Schools, a rural district in the upper Midwest region of the United States, has creatively expanded AP® offerings for students at Holly High School. Prior to 2009, AP® offerings at Holly High were limited to five face-to-face courses. That year, one of the school’s gifted students asked to take AP® European History, prompting the school to consider different avenues through which new courses could be made available to interested students.

For the first few years, Holly High worked with an array of online providers. Partnering with multiple providers was a challenge for students and the school, due to differing learning management systems, digital platforms, policies and procedures, and grading philosophies. School leaders felt continuing in this manner would limit their ability to continue to expand course options.

In 2011 a student expressed interest in AP® Music Theory. Holly High School obtained the course from The Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.), a non-profit organization providing supplemental online high school courses, and one of the few providers that offered the course. Satisfied with the breadth of offerings and instructional model at VHS, Holly High School consolidated the number of providers, focusing on delivery with two organizations. This reduction streamlined delivery of courses and allowed for manageable expansion of AP® offerings.

Partnering with VHS presented Holly High with a platform to expand offerings outside of the AP® program as well. Holly High worked with VHS to create a solution to customize curricula for their academic calendar and utilize their faculty to instruct the courses. Combined with access to the full catalog of VHS courses, the customized solution has increased Holly’s capacity to personalize offerings to student needs and has improved the faculty’s comfort and performance with technology-enhanced instruction. Holly’s online instructors benefitted from VHS’ rigorous, six-week professional development program that modeled cohort-based, online learning and increased their appreciation for their students’ experiences.

Benefits at Holly High School

When engaged in cohort-based, asynchronous courses, student performance on AP® exams improved dramatically. After adopting VHS’ AP® English Literature and Composition and AP® English Language and Composition courses, student pass rates (score of 3 or better) grew from 66% to 93% for AP® English Literature and from 62% to 84% for AP® English Language. The percentage of students scoring a 4 and 5 rose from 20% to 54% for the English Language and Composition course!

Charles Gragg, Holly High’s AP® English Language and Composition teacher, believes the online activities force students to read the class materials more carefully. Over the course of a year, considering assignments, group activities, and discussion prompts, he estimates his online students write as much as 60,000 original words (the length of an average novel). Gragg believes another major contributor to improved performance are the weekly open-ended, asynchronous discussions. His students debate each other in an environment that provides opportunity for reflection before they compose their thoughts, increasing the quality of their work and minimizing anxiety caused by participation in a group. The frequent use of class blogs and peer review activities also motivates students to do their best work, because their work is shared within the online classroom.

The evolution of Holly’s online program has significantly expanded students’ options and has provided students with valuable experiences that will enhance their post-secondary work. Student performance in online courses has improved as students have become more familiar with this modality of learning and access to global classrooms through VHS programming has expanded students’ perspective. As the program continues to grow there is no doubt that Holly High School students will be well prepared to pursue their interests and careers following graduation from high school.

1. Morgan, R. & Klaric, J. (2007). AP® students in college: An analysis of five-year academic careers (College Board Rep. No. 2007-4).