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Free AP Classes Offered Through Massive Open Online Courses

High school students who want to take Advanced Placement Biology, AP Environmental Science, or AP Physics 2 can just log on at home and watch instructors at Rice University in Houston deliver the materials free through new massive open online courses or MOOCs.

The courses are offered as part of a high school initiative launched by the Web site, edX, a joint, nonprofit venture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

The edX courses follow the AP curriculum, but are not "AP endorsed" by the New York City-based College Board, which owns the AP program.The edX Web site notes that the College Board is not in partnership with edX to develop or promote these offerings. 

The biology course, which began Oct. 20 and will be the first in a series of five, is co-taught by Reid Whitaker, the executive director of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice, and Kara Burrous, an AP teacher at Stephen Austin High School in Houston. The first, six-week course includes lecture videos, homework practice problems, assignments, and discussion boards that students can access on their own. The final course will be a two-week review.

As of Tuesday, 6,000 students signed up for biology through the MOOC at Rice.  Another 5,000 have enrolled in the AP environmental or AP physics courses so far, both of which have four courses and begin Oct. 27. "We are getting a big traction of students from all around the world," although most are from the United States, said Whitaker in a phone interview.

"We wanted to provide these courses for students who might not have access otherwise or maybe they have a full schedule already," said Whitaker "For students to be able to do it anytime, anywhere, is so powerful," he said. Others are signing on to supplement what they are learning in a traditional classroom for extra practice.

Students can audit the course or turn in assignments weekly to earn an honors or a verified certificate from edX. The goal of the courses is prepare student for the AP exam, said Whitaker.

The online format, however, can't provide hands-on lab experience. The Rice instructors recommend activities, provide designs, and suggest materials for students to do on their own, said Whitaker.

Rice is motivated to provide the free service because it wants to help high school students be ready for college-level math and science, said Whitaker. While not designed as a recruiting tool, Whitaker said having Rice's name attached to the course is a positive.

The College Board does not require students to take an AP course prior to taking an AP exam. However, if a student takes AP courses through an online or distance-learning course provider, such as a virtual school, those courses may only be listed as AP courses on students' transcripts if those providers have qualified through the AP Course Audit to label their courses "AP," according to the College Board, which maintains a list of online providers for 2014. "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," said the College Board's Trevor Packer said in a statement.

There are plans to roll out 27 courses, some of which are AP, as part of the edX high school program on other campuses, including Boston University and MIT.

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