On Monday, the massive open online course (MOOC) platform edX opened registration for AP Biology: Part 1, the first course on the site which explicitly focuses on preparing students for an AP exam. The course has been made available in partnership with Rice University’s Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship (RDLS). It is co-taught by Reid Whitaker, the executive director of the RDLS, and Kara Burrous, an AP Biology teacher from Stephen F. Austin High School in Fort Bend ISD.
The opening of AP Biology: Part 1 marked the beginning of edX’s High School Initiative, a major expansion of edX’s high school offerings. Over the next year and a half, the free online platform will roll out a total of 43 educational programs equivalent to a total of 20 different classes. These will include 8 College Board-certified AP offerings: AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, AP Physics, AP Chemistry, AP Computer Science, AP Statistics, AP Calculus BC, and AP English Language and Composition. Other options will include high school math courses at several levels, foreign language courses designed to prepare students for the AP classes in those languages, and even a course designed to guide students through the college admissions process.
The High School Initiative marks an unprecedented expansion by MOOCs into high school-targeted content. MOOCs have been a hot topic in higher education since 2012, when edX and its for-profit counterparts Coursera and Udacity began offering online courses through prestigious partner universities. However, the three biggest names in MOOCs had only limited high school programming before edX’s High School Initiative. Prior to this month, edX offered no AP courses. Coursera currently offers only AP Statistics and AP Calculus AB and BC, and Udacity and the newer platform Amplify MOOC offer only AP Computer Science. Until now, these have been the only AP courses available as MOOCs from any provider.
The development of wide-ranging high school and AP programming by edX is potentially groundbreaking in many ways. First and foremost, the availability of high-quality AP programming in 8 different areas opens up new avenues for high school students to earn university credit on a wider scale. While it is possible to receive credit for certain Coursera courses at some institutions, it is fairly uncommon for high schoolers to do so; more commonly, they take MOOCs for enrichment. With online APs, though, the potential college credit comes not from the course itself, but from the AP exam score. For the first time, with the availability of 8 different AP classes as MOOCs, online education has the potential to be a significant source of early college credit, alongside dual enrollment classes and campus-based AP and IB curricula. If edX’s high school MOOCs are successful, some school districts may formulate policies to allow students to take them for independent study. This would be particularly helpful for students whose home campuses do not offer a wide range of AP classes or offer no AP classes at all.
And regardless of individual districts’ reactions and the time it might take them to formulate such policies, the High School Initiative will have immediate benefits for homeschool students. While it has always been possible for homeschool students to sit for AP exams, it can be difficult to prepare adequately without the benefit of a specially tailored AP curriculum. Tuition-based online and private AP courses for these students do exist – some costing as much as $500 – but edX’s offerings are 100% free. With the availability of these courses, homeschooling families now have the opportunity to save on early college credit in the same way that public school students who take APs do – with no cost whatsoever beyond the exam fee.
It’s also important to note that the High School Initiative will do more than just double the number of AP MOOCs available – it will also be the first push into AP humanities courses in the MOOC format. If the AP English Language and Composition course is successful, it will set an important precedent. Like all AP humanities courses, the exam for English Language and Composition is essay-based – as opposed to the STEM courses, for which the exams are primarily problem-based. This means that STEM APs are much more easily adapted to online formats; a computer can tell whether the correct answer has been entered for a math problem, but it cannot reliably grade an essay on a 1-9 scale. If the AP English course is successful, however, it may spur further expansion into MOOCs for the humanities APs and for high school humanities in general. Whether this would be a positive or negative outcome is up for debate, but either way, it would certainly have the potential to create new approaches to teaching the humanities.
And of course, the impact of MOOCs is not limited to homeschool students and others who have limited access to AP courses. The edX AP offerings will potentially be very useful resources for conventional teachers of AP classes. Because the courses are available online for free, teachers could assign edX videos as homework to supplement readings and in-class lectures. This could free up more time for labs, say, or allow teachers to delve into the nuances of topics after videos introduce the basics.
The edX High School Initiative is opening up a wealth of possibilities for the future of high school advanced curricula and for the future of online education. It will be interesting to see what happens.