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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview


Advanced Placement Online
AP courses are available at the click of a mouse
by Pamela Burdman


IT IS THE END of the spring semester, and Richard Lam, a senior at McAteer High School, is preparing for his Advanced Placement Macroeconomics exam.

With a click of his mouse, the bespectacled 18-year-old is watching a little cartoon man in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt jog across his computer screen. “Preparing for the exam is like training for a marathon,” a man’s voice tells him.

“I like this kind of new design,” said Lam. “It’s fun, especially when you turn in an assignment and it said you got 60 out of 60. It’s not just sitting in the classroom and listening to the teacher. If I learned it in class, I think I would learn it, but just some of it.”

For high schools with few AP-ready teachers or students, distance learning is providing a new way to enrich curriculum. Though few advocates claim the online courses are better than the brick-and-mortar kind, they are an attractive option when the alternative is no AP class at all.

Since the technology is still in the early phases, glitches are not uncommon. And cyber education has yet to circumvent some of the problems, such as race and poverty, that plague other aspects of the educational system: Often the students who are hardest to reach via the Internet are the very ones who already tend not to take AP courses.

“The toughest thing is making sure kids have a computer at home,” said McAteer High School social studies department chair Julie Coghlan. “The computer labs are only open until about four o’clock.”

Lam and his classmates completed the course successfully. At Balboa High School, the other San Francisco school that entered the University of California’s College Prep program, however, only one student survived the semester in an AP course.

Indeed, UC officials confirm that at the 33 schools that participated in College Prep, the number of students enrolled dwindled from 206 to about 160 by the end of the spring semester.

With a budget of more than $4 million in state funding, UC covers course fees ranging from $395 to $750 for each student who enrolls in a course provided by one of three corporate partners or a UC campus.

The program has ambitious expansion plans, and the Legislature has more than doubled its funding for next year. Elaine Wheeler, the UC Santa Cruz administrator who directs the program, said she expects to enroll about 1,500 students in 53 schools next year.

The states of Florida, Michigan and Washington also are supporting programs to deliver AP courses electronically. They are working with companies such as APEX, part of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s empire, which has offered its five AP courses to some 600 students.

“One of the biggest things we’re learning is we need to develop a whole prerequisite program, because you can’t just drop the kids in in the junior year. Students most likely to succeed are those who get strong school and parental support,” said CEO Sally Narodnick of APEX.

“With students from the outreach schools where there isn’t a strong AP culture and where they may not have had rigorous prerequisites, or where there isn’t ready access to a computer, we’re getting high dropout rates. That’s because they get behind and they get discouraged.”

As with any pilot program, the online AP courses have had their share of glitches. Lam ran into problems getting his assignments and quizzes graded, and that turned out to be the result of an instructor error in entering grades, according to APEX.

APEX Director of Instruction Jack Babani said prompt grading is something he still is working on, because students need feedback in order to move ahead in their coursework.

The technological problems don’t seem to have disheartened Lam. He will attend UC Davis in the fall, where he hopes to study computer science. “I would like to design a course like this, because it’s cool,” he said.

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