Complementary Models of MOOC Instruction for Advanced Placement High School Courses

Editor's Note: read an August 8 interview with VPAL's Daniel Seaton on this topic in Education Dive.

by Daniel Seaton, VPAL Research Scientist

I have always been intrigued by the idea of adapting the edX platform for more direct use in classrooms. Advanced Placement® high school courses provide an intriguing ecosystem for such development: the educational technology market around K-12 instruction is currently quite active, Advanced Placement® high school courses often have overlapping curricula with introductory college courses, and high schools still suffer access and efficacy issues similar to those that drove the start of the MOOC movement. Appropriate concerns have been voiced as to whether open online models of instruction fit in the K-12 sector, but it is important that institutions are attempting to offer alternative instructional models utilizing MOOC content.

The edX High School Initiative was launched with the specific mission of addressing the college preparatory gap. Many of the courses launched by a number of edX partners focused on Advanced Placement (AP®) - a program sponsored by the College Board in the US that helps students earn college credit during high school. edX partner institutions committed tremendous energy in developing course content for open online models and a myriad of course offerings now exist on Simultaneously, some institutions began facilitating complementary models of MOOC instruction that more directly integrated with high school teachers, their classrooms, and the overall school systems.

This spring, MIT held the LINC 2016 conference, and two projects aimed at supporting high school instruction stood out as worthwhile to share with the Harvard community (noting the author is highly involved with one project): Davidson Next (Davidson College) and Project Accelerate (Boston University). Both projects are a part of the edX High School Initiative, and each uniquely addresses a particular challenge in AP® high school settings. Furthermore, each shows how we can adapt the edX platform in ways that directly address the needs of high school teachers and students.

Davidson Next: A Teacher-Led MOOC Model for Flipped/Blended High School Instruction

Davidson Next is a Davidson College supported project that provides free Advanced Placement® materials meant to improve student mastery of difficult AP® topics and provide teachers high-quality AP®-aligned content that can be used in blended and flipped settings. Content is available in three subjects - Calculus, Macroeconomics, and Physics - and has been delivered to students and teachers in three distinct phases:

  1. Pilot: Setup blended and flipped learning opportunities with Davidson Next content for 34 teachers and 1200 students in Charlotte, NC high schools.

  2. Open online format with ~37,000 learners from around the world.

  3. CCX (Custom Courses on edX): Provided private MOOC instances to 261 teachers and their 4400 students in diverse settings around the country.

The Pilot program in Charlotte showed success in that the 34 teachers provided rigorous feedback on course content and the 1200 students provided interaction data that could be correlated with performance on the AP® exam; scores were collected along with other district data that allowed measures of efficacy. From the LINC paper, AP® exam performance is correlated with with content usage for Calculus BC students, estimating that each additional hour of usage relative to the class median predicted an additional 0.08 points on the AP® Calculus BC exam. Findings are significant (p < .05) and similar across a variety of usage metrics.

Currently, Davidson Next is pressing forward with a new Custom Course (CCX) tool developed at MIT that allows teachers to create private MOOC instances where they have control over course parameters, such as due dates, content release, and access to a student gradebook. In deploying content through CCX, Davidson Next has been particularly interested in whether enrollments in teacher-led models (CCX) scale as effectively as open online ( The figure below shows enrollment scaling across each phase of Davidson Next: Charlotte Pilot,, and Custom Course Phase (CCX). During the primary on-boarding period for CCX in August, comparing enrollments across all three programs indicates that teacher-led instructional models can scale as effectively as open online (Figure: for all three programs, solid lines are overall cumulative enrollment, dashed lines are enrolling users interacting with at least one module in a course, and the shading is meant only to aid the eye). 

The Davidson Next team will continue these programs in the Fall and is particularly interested in collecting more outcome data across the and CCX phases.

Project Accelerate: The University as a Support System for AP® Access

The Physics Department at Boston University uses the edX platform to provide access to high schools that lack AP® Physics programs. From their recent paper presented at LINC 2016:

Underserved high school students in many urban, rural, and small suburban communities don’t have access to Advanced Placement courses either because of lack of trained teachers, limited or no AP® program, or a school history of low participation, especially among low-income students.

The team at BU does a fantastic job of framing the issue of nationwide access to AP®, but the Boston public school (BPS) system data are particularly striking: of the 34 regular and charter high schools serving 16,165 students, only 2 high schools offer algebra based AP® Physics 1. Only 60 BPS students took the AP® Physics 1 exam during the 2014-2015 school year.  

Project Accelerate is a partnership program between Boston University and area high schools that do not offer AP® Physics courses. The program uses the edX platform as a means of bringing an AP® course to students at these high schools. Students are given dedicated in-school time within which they can work through MOOC content and they are offered weekly recitations and hands-on laboratories at Boston University to supplement their learning. The weekly recitations are led by undergraduate physics majors or physics education majors at BU, providing important face-to-face instruction for high school students.

In the first year of Project Accelerate, 4 Boston public high schools (BPS) and 3 western Massachusetts communities partnered with a total of 24 enrolling students (17 from BPS). These students were 67% black and/or Hispanic and 75% on free and/or reduced lunch programs. Twenty-one of the enrolling students completed the program and the pre/post gain on the Force Concept Evaluation was 0.53. Perhaps most importantly, 8 out of 17 BPS students applied to summer STEM programs. Another impressive statistic is that even with the commute from high school to Boston University, the recitation attendance rate throughout the 35-week program was 90%.

Project Accelerate will push forward into next year and has already 11 schools planning to participate. They are also actively collecting outcome data from the first year of their program (e.g., AP® exam scores).

Summary and Discussion

The open online format for MOOCs has many benefits, but there are still opportunities for more institutions to explore innovative uses for the edX platform. Advanced Placement® high school courses are one such example that offers a myriad of opportunities to engage students and teachers using open online content (forthcoming white paper, Raphaelson & Tingley, "MOOCs, Teenagers, and Potential Opportunities for HarvardX").  Furthermore, AP® courses have the added benefit of existing standards for measuring efficacy and access against state and national standards. Both Davidson Next and Project Accelerate utilized standardized scoring or national statistics to inform their projects and measure overall efficacy. Such data have been missing from most MOOC studies to date, but that is largely due to lack of standardized data across higher education and the breadth of content being generated for MOOCs. It is possible that efficacy studies in AP® high school MOOC implementations may inspire models of analysis for MOOCs more generally.

Teams from Davidson Next and Project Accelerate are preparing to engage more students in the coming academic year and laying the groundwork for collection of standardized data sets related to AP® curricula.

High schools are not the only place where the edX platform can be adapted to serve a specific community of learners. With similar motivations of addressing large scale challenges in education, organizations are using the platform to address issues ranging from vocational training in the US (Educate Workforce), to the refugee crisis in Europe (Edraak). I would like to finish this blog post by posing a challenging questions: how will we continue to find innovative uses for MOOC platforms and content beyond the open online market?

Thanks to the Project Accelerate team at BU for helpful clarifications.

Disclaimer: Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author and are NOT endorsed in any way by organizations mentioned in the blog.