Online Course Puts One Student to the Test

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Maria Allen, a parent in Reston whose children attend Fairfax County schools, told me a story that I think is important and applicable to schools throughout the area. It is about a surprising use for online courses.

I hope other readers will tell me their experiences using such courses to substitute for or supplement what our schools provide.

Allen was worried about her middle school son's prospects in high school and beyond. Matthew had always been regarded by his teachers as an underachiever, or worse. He received B's with absolutely no effort because he did well on what were, she believed, very easy tests.

Every new school year, she donned her "Super-Nag" persona, got on his case and tried to turn around his bad habits and attitude. It never worked. By the second quarter, whenever she got busy or relaxed, he stopped working and his teachers started complaining.

So Allen was more than a little surprised when her son asked to take an Advanced Placement biology course online at the beginning of eighth grade, when he was 14. She knew from where he got the idea. His big brother, a high school junior, had signed up for online AP biology so he would have time for other courses during the school day. She laughed. Good joke, Matthew. But he brought it up again. He was serious. Even when she showed him the exhausting syllabus on, he did not back down.

Well, she thought, why not? She paid the $600 fee and waited, without much hope, to see what would happen.

"Matthew continued to put negligible effort into his middle school work," Allen told me, "but in biology, he started to work hard; very hard, in fact. And, even more remarkably, he continued to work hard throughout the year."

She said that Matthew took a full complement of eighth-grade honors courses but that they did not demand enough of him.

"Unencumbered by any significant homework, Matt had plenty of time available to log on to AP bio for a few hours each evening, and so he often did better on AP quizzes and assignments than my high school junior, who was always swamped with homework and competing deadlines from several other challenging courses," Allen said.

Matthew got a B from the Apex Learning online teacher. He was thrilled that the AP testing room at Herndon High School buzzed with the news that a middle school kid was taking the exam and even happier when he got his score, a 4, the equivalent of a B in most colleges.

"Before the course was even over, he announced that he was taking AP psychology online over the summer and didn't forget or change his mind as summer grew near," Allen said.

Matthew got a B in that course, too, but unlike with his middle school classes, he had to work for it.

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