South Dakota’s attempt to offer advanced placement (AP) classes for high school students via the internet underscores the need for human interaction and sound scheduling, according to state and local education officials.

The online delivery of AP curriculum has increased access to these valuable classes for the state’s students, but, just as with face-to-face instruction, some students couldn’t keep up with the work or didn’t have the motivation required to complete the challenging classes, officials said.

Having a teacher in the classroom to assist students is still key to the courses’ success, said Jim Selchert, technology coordinator for Gayville-Volin School District in Gayville, S.D.

“Technology is going to expand incredibly what we can do in education, but you still need contact with a teacher to make sure it’s working,” he said. “At some point in each of these situations, you need a physical human being who can help.”

The online classes allow high school students to earn college-level credit for successfully completing the curriculum, which is delivered through a contract the state has with Apex Learning of Bellevue, Wash. According to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, South Dakota has spent $216,000 in recent months to provide classes to 116 students in 31 schools.

High school students can take one of 10 AP courses at no cost. Those who take the classes often can get credit at both their high school and college.

Kelly Gehrels, a senior at Rutland High School, took U.S. government and politics online because she hopes to major in the subject at South Dakota State University next year.

“I’m not exposed to as much political science as I should be to go into my major,” the 17-year-old said.

She spent 15 hours a week on the class during school hours and at home. She eMailed her teacher with questions and to send in assignments. Her online report card kept a running total of her grade. Each week, she answered an essay question that was posted and shared with other students in the class.

“It is so interesting to get into them and read what other people think,” she said.

The web-based courses were first offered to the state’s students in January, but before that only 38 of South Dakota’s nearly 200 high schools offered AP classes. The classes are mostly self-paced programs, and according to the Chronicle story, the program was set up to have someone at each school monitor students’ progress.

“We agree strongly that having an on-site support person—and a teacher is best—is a critical part of the success package,” said Keith Oelrich, president and chief executive officer of Apex Learning. “We try to encourage any school to appoint a site coordinator.”

The on-site mentor would help students when they have technology problems and when scheduling issues arise, said Oelrich. He also said it’s important to have an on-site person present to serve as a motivational resource and to ensure that students are keeping up with the challenging coursework.

But whether all districts have taken this step is unclear. “Our expectation is that there is an on-site coordinator, but that’s not information we have right now,” said Oelrich.

Tammy Bauck, director of technology for the South Dakota Department of Education and Cultural Affairs, said it’s also unclear how much those monitors help students.

“Who that person was and how much help they actually provided—encouragement and so on—we don’t know,” she said. To find out, Bauck said her office is sending surveys to teachers, mentors, and students who participated in the classes this year.

A ‘culture of AP’

Having a scheduled class time would help students, said Belle Fourche High School guidance counselor Jeff Caldwell.

He said he has seen a student struggle with and drop an online AP course in microeconomics.

“I think we should make a firm time each day, just as if it were a scheduled course, for that student to work on that course,” he said. “It would still require some homework, but that would provide some structure.”

Apex officials agree that scheduled class times are a good idea for implementing these courses. And, they acknowledge, there are special challenges that students taking online AP classes face.

For one thing, AP classes are designed to be more difficult that regular high school courses, whether they are delivered traditionally or online.

“AP classes are tough everywhere,” said Oelrich. “Completion rates even in the classroom are harder for kids.”

Linda Pittenger is the director of the Kentucky Virtual High School, which delivers online instruction in numerous subjects, including AP classes.

“Our biggest challenge this year has been creating and maintaining realistic expectations … about the rigors of these courses and the time and focus that [are] required,” she said. “The underestimation of these factors, in our limited experience, is the most significant contributor to students dropping classes.”

And, Oelrich said, South Dakota is using online learning to extend access to students that might not have had it before.

“By definition, we are playing the game with kids who aren’t the traditional AP students,” he said. “They may not be the kids who are most prepared for AP courses.”

“Many of the kids that take our classes have never taken an AP class before,” agreed Paul Bloom, vice president for strategic marketing at Apex. “There is not a ‘culture of AP’ at their school.” In schools where there is a “culture of AP,” students take their cues from their peers, Bloom said.

All of these factors may contribute to higher dropout rates among students taking the courses online. But Apex and South Dakota officials say there is not yet any data available to examine the number of completions versus attempts.

“We don’t have a success rate calculated on a per customer basis; we’ll pull that together at the end of the semester,” said Oelrich. “What I can say is that the people who are providing the program are pretty pleased with the results, and there is evidence they are … coming back next year.”

In fact, Oelrich cited a report from the College Board (the distributor of the AP exam) that said students taking the Apex online courses are doing just as well as or better than students taking courses through traditional means.

According to Oelrich, the most important factor in determining success at a particular school is “a really active, engaged, and enthusiastic champion on site.” That person can be a teacher, administrator, or counselor, he said, as long as he or she is there to help kids and get them excited.

It may take a while to get the formula right, Pittenger said.

“I think all concerned should not be too dismayed—or surprised—that, while many will [succeed], all students will not be successful until we learn much more about multiple dimensions of online learning at this level,” she said.


Gayville-Volin School District

Apex Learning

Kentucky Virtual High School

Chronicle of Higher Education