Rice University launched a free Advanced Placement biology course Monday on a Web site overseen by two other elite schools, a potentially significant milestone for a movement that aims to bring college-level courses to high school students.
The site, edX, was created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in 2012 as a nonprofit platform for those universities and selected others to offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs , to the world.
AP Biology from Rice is the first MOOC on the site advertised as an AP course for high school students. It is divided into four content segments — the Cell; Genetics; Evolution and Diversity; and Ecology — followed by an exam in April.
How many students will take AP Biology or any other AP class in this way is anyone’s guess. The College Board reported that 213,000 students took the AP biology test in May. More than 2.3 million took at least one AP test in subjects ranging from art history to Spanish literature. Students don’t have to take an AP class to take a corresponding test.
Sometimes students pay to take AP classes from online providers. Advertised tuition for such classes ranges from $75 to more than $500.
“Our program you can take for free,” said Reid Whitaker, executive director of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice. “This is a comprehensive program. Free resources. That’s a game changer.”
Whitaker is co-teaching the MOOC with Kara Burrous, a veteran AP biology teacher at Stephen F. Austin High School outside Houston. He acknowledged that his course cannot replicate the kind of hands-on laboratory experience that would be required in a typical AP biology class, but he said the MOOC plans to give recommendations for labs. There will be lecture videos as well as multiple-choice practice questions, free response questions and tutorial videos to show how to solve problems step by step.
A key marketing point for these MOOCs will be their connection to top-name universities. Boston University will offer AP Physics 1, and MIT will offer AP Physics C: Mechanics, both starting in January. There also will be AP MOOCs in computer science and chemistry from Cooper Union; in physics: electricity and magnetism from Georgetown University ; and in English language and composition from the Tennessee Board of Regents.
The College Board, a nonprofit organization based in New York, oversees the AP program. A summary of Rice’s AP Biology course notes that the College Board “is not currently in partnership with edX to develop or promote these offerings.”
“We are interested in the work edX is doing to create supports for more students to enroll in AP coursework and are looking forward to further discussion with them regarding our shared goal: to remove obstacles and deliver opportunity,” Trevor Packer, a College Board senior vice president, said in a statement.
David Knuffke, a veteran AP biology teacher at Deer Park High School in New York who moderates an online discussion board for teachers in the discipline hosted by the College Board, said he was unsure how many students would be attracted to an online version of a class that is lab-intensive. “If it’s a useful resource for my students, I’ll be cluing them into it,” he said.
Students who obtain a high mark on an AP exam often are able to bypass introductory courses in that field when they enter college or can qualify for college credit.
Since it began in May 2012, edX has drawn about 3 million registered users. Of those, 150,000 are believed to be high school students.