Modules for Mastery

Davidson College releases blended learning modules on edX to help high school students and teachers tackle the trickiest questions on Advanced Placement tests.

July 22, 2015

Davidson College is today launching a series of online test preparation modules through massive open online course provider edX to help high school students and teachers in Advanced Placement courses.

The initiative, known as Davidson Next, has been in the works since late 2013, when the college brought together the College Board, edX, regional schools and other partners to increase access to college-level course materials. Using data from the College Board, faculty members identified low-scoring question topics in calculus, macroeconomics and physics and, working with local high school teachers, built standalone modules to help students understand each concept.

“A big concern for our president [Carol Quillen] and the institution right now is trying to expand access to high-quality instructional materials, both for people coming to Davidson and also nationally,” said Patrick Sellers, vice president for strategic partnerships and professor of political science at Davidson. “This effort really fits into that focus on access.”

The modules are available to anyone through edX, but the initiative is particularly concerned with expanding access to underserved students. A recent study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed students who came to college with AP credit were more likely to graduate from college within four years, yet many low-income, minority and rural students lack access to the courses.

"We have heard a lot about a number of initiatives that are … trying to increase the enrollment of traditionally underrepresented groups in AP classes," said Julie Goff, project manager of Davidson Next. "What we're going to see is an increased demand for these types of resources when you have students enrolling who may not have enrolled in AP classes before."

Sellers stressed the modules are meant to supplement -- not replace -- instruction, whether that means a high school AP class or an online course. For the time being, the modules are not full courses (although those are on the way). One module, for example, breaks down the Phillips curve, an economics concept that explains the relationship between inflation and unemployment. Another explains pressure, force and flow in fluids.

In total, Davidson Next includes 14 modules in each of the three disciplines. Each module, aligned with AP curricula and approved by the College Board, was designed by a different high school teacher.

For Davidson Next to succeed, however, the college needs to get the modules into the hands of teachers. The college is working with school systems as well as tapping into the College Board’s network to spread awareness about the modules, a spokeswoman said. Davidson Next will also offer an introductory MOOC for AP teachers.

“A big focus is to help teachers use these modules in a blended learning framework,” Sellers said. Many of the modules include short video explanations, interactive elements and prompts to complete a task using pencil and paper. Combined with classroom instruction, Sellers said, “It’s not like [students] are doing just one thing” to learn the concepts.

Teachers in North and South Carolina spent the previous academic year piloting the modules. In all, about 1,200 students and 34 teachers across 26 high schools participated. At the end of the year, 70 percent of teachers scheduled to teach the same AP courses this coming year said they would use the Davidson Next materials again, Sellers said.

Davidson is working with a researcher at Harvard University to test the impact of the modules. Results from that study should be ready next summer, Sellers said.

Davidson’s interest in MOOCs, combined with its status as a liberal arts college, has drawn interest from edX. Another of the college’s recent initiatives includes forming a consortium with three other liberal arts colleges to work together on blended learning, which the MOOC provider pledged to support.

EdX’s course lineup mostly consists of college-level content, but the MOOC provider is slowly building a catalog of high school-level courses. The edX High School Initiative, which Davidson Next is a part of, features 57 additional courses, many of them designed to help students prepare for AP tests.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, said the MOOC provider launched the High School Initiative in response to the fact that most of the learners taking MOOCs have already earned a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Data from the high school-level courses show half of learners lack such a credential, he said, adding that about one-quarter of learners in those courses are either parents or teachers.

“It’s really moved the needle on demographics,” Agarwal said.

EdX has “a number of things on our road map” to support the use of modules like those in Davidson Next in a blended setting, Agarwal said. He mentioned more feedback on student performance and new forms of student engagement as features edX is looking to add to its platform.

Davidson Next plans to apply the modular concept to other AP courses -- there are 38 in total -- but will need more funding to do so, Sellers said. A $1.8 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, as well as some funding from Davidson, paid for the initial modules. Other than foundational support to finance Davidson Next, the college is also exploring whether the modules could be turned into a professional development program for teachers.

“We want to be committed to this core principle of access,” Seller said. “We can’t see that changing.”


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