Beyond the Traditional School Model: How the Digital Learning Boom Leads One Rural School to Explore Advanced Placement Offerings

By: Amy Michalowski, Dean at The Virtual High School

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 lies in the fact that a single online instructor can teach a class that spans 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® as well as 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® offerings helps schools and districts exponentially expand their catalog while helping address scheduling, resource, and budget issues.

Online AP Instruction: Three Models

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, including K-12 focused agencies and post-secondary institutions. Partnering with multiple providers was a challenge for students and the school, because of differing learning management systems, digital platforms, policies and procedures, and grading philosophies. School leaders felt continuing in this manner would limit their ability to expand course options.

Their strategy began shifting in 2011, when a student expressed interest in AP® Music Theory. Holly High School obtained the course from The Virtual High School (VHS), a non-profit, online collaborative 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 the collaborative presented Holly High with a platform to expand offerings outside of the AP® program as well. Holly High took advantage of VHS’ private offering solution to customize curricula for their academic calendar and utilize their faculty to instruct the courses. Combined with access to the full catalog of collaborative courses, the private offerings have increased Holly’s capacity to personalize offerings to student needs and have improved the faculty’s comfort and performance with technology-enhanced instruction. Holly’s online instructors benefitted from the collaborative’s rigorous, six-week professional development program that modeled cohort-based, online learning and increased their appreciation for their students’ experiences.

Benefits of Effective Implementation

In 2011, the last year of the school’s working with several providers, Holly students took an AP Economics class that was basically a “read this and take a test” format. Eleven students took that AP test, but only one passed.

On the other hand, when the school opted for online courses like AP English Literature and AP English Language from VHS, students showed a growth in scores of 3 and above from the “pre-online” phase through to the present, from 66% to 93% for English Literature and 62% to 84% for English Language. In fact, scores of 4 and 5 rose from 20% to 54% for the language course.

The AP English Language teacher, Charles Gragg, concluded that the online activities force students to actually read the class materials and also write as much as 60,000 original words (the length of an average novel). Another major contributor to improved performance is the fact that students and teachers participate in weekly open-ended, asynchronous discussions. Gragg reports that the online discussion forums allow students to debate each other in an environment that gives them plenty of time to reflect and compose their thoughts, minimizing the risk of embarrassment. He also found that students are more motivated to submit outstanding work because their online assignments are often shared with classmates through peer reviews and blogs.

The evolution of Holly’s AP models has significantly expanded students’ options. While the school currently has two online models, experience is showing which attributes universally bolster online learning success. Additionally, online classrooms’ balance of global interaction and independent coursework enables students to hone 21st century skills such as collaboration and self-regulation. Enhancing all these attributes will better prepare students to pursue their interests and careers following their high school experience.

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


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