K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 25/Distance Learning: Advanced Placement Case Studies

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In recent years, the boom in online distance learning has provided today’s students with more options than ever to facilitate their learning process. Contrary to what many people believe, the advantages of distance learning far outweigh the negative aspects of the learning medium. The most notable advantage is that of the time and distance factor. Students are free to take distance learning courses whenever and wherever they want. Distance learning also allows for self-paced learning, accessibility, and convenience. On the other hand, distance learning also has the following weaknesses: the need for initiative and motivation, lack of immediate feedback, and social isolation to name a few. This posting will review two distance learning case studies pertaining to the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program.


The College Board’s Advanced Placement Program offers college level courses for high school students at schools across the US. Although they are much more rigorous when compared to traditional courses, AP courses offer students the following benefits: the ability to earn college credit, advanced college course placement, an edge in the college admissions process, and the benefit of learning from great teachers. More importantly, students can potentially save college tuition and graduate faster by receiving the required score on the AP exams. In addition, AP courses offer students the ability to raise their weighted grade point averages since a majority of colleges offer higher grade points for AP courses. As a result, students who have performed well in AP courses have an advantage in applying to the most competitive universities. As of November, 2009, there are thirty one AP courses available for students willing to take on the additional challenge. Unfortunately, there is a big inequity in terms of the number of AP courses offered in schools across the US.


Whereas boarding schools and schools in affluent areas offer students nearly the full AP course offering, students from poorer communities may not even get a chance to take an AP course prior to graduation. To further exacerbate matters, students from poorer districts have a higher tendency to be taught by lesser quality teachers who lack experience and do not have access to professional development opportunities. To illustrate, Beverly Hills High School, a school located in one of the wealthiest cities in the US with a 9% black and Hispanic population, offers over thirty AP courses. On the other hand, Inglewood High School, which is located in a low-income community with a 97% black and Hispanic population, offers three AP courses.

In order to bridge the inequity gap surrounding AP courses, a pilot program was launched in a low-income community in California. The idea was to enable students from the low-income communities to take the AP courses not offered in their schools via distance learning. Students at the community took the courses after school in the comforts of their home. Unfortunately, the pilot program was deemed a failure – over 73% of the students ended up dropping out of the courses before year’s end. The major reason for students dropping out was the lack of personal, face-to-face contact and supervision. As stated in Human Resources Development, the teacher is a source of support and motivation. In general, the teacher can increase student motivation in various ways through direct interaction, encouragement, positive criticism, mentoring and coaching, and comradeship to name a few. Without such a figure present, students felt isolated, which resulted in their dropping out. Another source of failure was the inability of the distance learning medium to address the various different learning styles of students. As a result, students who learned best via physical instruction ended up dropping out as well.

Rather than marking the project as a failure, a second run was implemented taking into account the previous reasons for the first collapse. Two important changes were made to the program. The first was that the students taking the distance learning courses were provided with much greater teacher support. The second change was to have the students take the courses at schools. By taking the courses at the school’s computer lab, students were provided with access to a teacher, who served the role of technology expert and offered general guidance. Another benefit of having the students take the courses at school was the social factor that was not present the first time around. Various literature point to the social factor as a very important one when it comes to learning. Unfortunately, it is the part that is often left out in distance learning programs. In learning together in a single location, students were able to offer each other social support and enjoy each other’s company at the same time. Although the social aspect came at a price of flexibility, it was well-worth it for the students in this case. Ultimately, the second run of the AP distance learning pilot program was a success. By the end of the second year, student dropout rates fell from 73% the year before to an astonishing 14%.

There have been similar case studies at the teacher training and university level as well. A teacher training distance learning program reported a 46% dropout rate before face-to-face meetings were integrated into the program. After the change, dropout rates fell to 8%. The UK’s Open University, a rather well-known distance learning university, also noted similar problems during its developmental stages. As it has been confirmed by the US Department of Education, distance learning is maximized when combined with traditional teaching methods. As stated previously, face-to-face meetings can be used as a source of motivation and focus. In short, educators must not take lightly the decision to include face-to-face learning sessions within a distance learning program to further raise its effectiveness for both the students and instructors.


Schools in low-income communities and rural communities share a similarity: the lack of access to AP courses. Take students at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Kentucky, for example. They’re offered a number of AP courses that can aid them in securing college credit and possibly even saving college tuition in the future. The school offers thirteen AP courses, which is a fair number to say the least. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Estill County High School, a small school located in rural Kentucky. In a stark contrast with the former school, this school does not offer any AP courses, putting their students at a disadvantage in the college admissions process.

According to the US Department of Education, over forty percent of schools in the US do not offer AP courses. In 2002, a law was passed in Kentucky that required high schools to offer students college credit-based courses, including AP courses. Unfortunately, the rural high schools were too small in size to justify offering AP courses to a small number of students. Moreover, the challenge of recruiting qualified teachers to teach AP subjects proved extremely difficult. In an effort to level the playing field, students attending rural high schools across the state were given the opportunity to take over twenty AP courses online via distance learning courses offered by the Kentucky Virtual High School.

The results have been excellent. According to Trevor Pecker, The College Board’s vice-president for Advanced Placement, the quality of AP courses taught online is superior when compared to traditional courses. He points that a lot of it has to do with teacher quality. It is explained that organizations and virtual schools that offer AP courses go after the highest quality teachers to ensure the success of their programs. As of September, 2009, thirty-two states offer meaningful supplemental online learning programs that offer a state virtual school or online courses provided by a private vendor. Unfortunately, more than a third of the states are still unable to offer their students AP courses through distance learning.

As of today, Florida boasts the nation’s largest virtual school. In 2008, a state law was passed that required every school district in Florida to offer online learning programs. In 2008, over 2,500 students enrolled in ten AP courses offered at the virtual school. Teachers teaching AP through distance learning courses stated that they liked the individualized approach the online medium offered. Moreover, statistics show that Florida students are more likely to pass an AP exam after taking an online course than a traditional course. According to statistics, Florida virtual school students receiving a passing score of 3 or higher were reported at 55.3%, whereas students from traditional classes were reported at 42.5%.

In virtual schools throughout the country, students are provided with the following key elements in their distance learning courses: textbooks, a computer, a study area, software, and a mentor. Researchers indicate that although distance learning may offer a lot of advantages for students living in remote areas, it’s never going to replace the traditional teacher-student interaction that is deemed important in the learning process. While the implementation of virtual schools have somewhat leveled the playing field to a great extent for rural students, the lack of a human and social element still remains. Like the previous case study, the role and the importance of a physical teacher are emphasized. Nevertheless, the remaining states need to play catch up in offering virtual schools and online AP course options to high school students in their respective states before other issues are addressed.


College Board. 28 October 2009 < http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/about.html>

“Advantage and Disadvantage of College Learning.” Distance Learning College Guide. 26 October 2009 < http://www.distance-learning-college-guide.com/advantage-and-disadvantage-of-distance-learning.html>

Solomon, Allen, and Paul Resta. Toward Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education, Boston, Pearson Education Group, 2003.

Warschauer, Mark. Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2004.

Weldon, Tim. “Advanced Placement in Rural Areas.” The Council of State Governments September 2009: 20-23.

Wilson, John. Human Resource Development: Learning and Training for Individuals and Organizations, London, Kogan Page, 1999.