WOODLAWN – Woodlawn High School senior Ziad Haddad is in a sophomore-level physics class, but it’s not because he was held back.
He is only there to use the computer in the back of the room, where he can access the most challenging physics course his school offers.
Haddad is one of 103 students in Maryland enrolled in virtual Advanced Placement classes, but the program that gave him the chance to take a nationally-recognized course is in jeopardy.
“We’re not always sure that this program will continue from year to year,” said Liz Glowa, the coordinator for Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunities.
MVLO offers computer-based AP classes if a school does not have a qualified teacher on staff to teach the course, there are not enough students interested in the subject or there is a conflict in the student’s schedule.
“It’s really looking at trying to create access,” said Glowa.
When only three students signed up for AP physics and two for AP statistics, Woodlawn High had to choose between offering the classes online or not at all.
“If we didn’t have these online courses, there would be five kids who would not have this opportunity. That’s only five kids but, for them and their parents, that can translate into a quite a bit of money in college credit,” said assistant principal Brian Morrison.
But MVLO relies on a combination of state and federal funding, but has no dedicated funding source in the state budget and cuts are coming to the federal source.
Glowa says that it is even possible that she could receive no grant money next year from the education technology portion of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which would be a significant blow to online learning.
“You can’t continue to sustain a program that is severely under-resourced,” Glowa said.
Those impending technology education cuts will hurt the online education program and Maryland students’ ability to stay competitive, said Thea Jones, a supervisor at the office of instructional technology in Baltimore County.
“E-learning is very valuable because it offers to our teachers and our students the option of being at the forefront of using Web-based resources in the way that they will be used in the future,” said Jones.
Baltimore County has 53 students enrolled in online AP classes, more than half of all the students in the state’s program, but Jones is not as concerned about federal cutbacks.
Due to the steady interest in electronic learning, the county has set aside money for the project. But she said other school systems might not be as lucky once the federal money dries up.
Glowa noted that the federal money was a temporary solution and has repeatedly asked that the state budget include money for MVLO.
In Virginia, the Virtual Advanced Placement School has received $495,000 in state funds each year — more than MVLO’s entire budget for all e-learning initiatives — according to a budget analyst for the Virginia Department of Education Budget Office.
With those additional state funds, Virginia has been able to put about 1,100 students in online AP classes, more than 10 times as many students as Maryland.
Neither online AP program, however, is without its problems. There has been no consistent way to track how students perform on the AP tests for either state.
The scores go directly to the student’s school, bypassing the online programs. Without complete data, it is difficult to gauge how effective the online courses are.
A breakdown in communication between schools and the online education coordinators has created other problems in Maryland.
At Woodlawn High, some of the students had technical problems that went unnoticed since the start of the year. They were unable to read comments their teachers made on their handwritten assignments or to know which questions they missed on certain tests.
“You can’t get feedback from the work that you send in. You don’t know what you’re getting wrong and you don’t know what you are getting right,” explained senior Douglas Brown.
Even before the programs are used, online AP courses meet with resistance.
Mary Scott Senan, the director of APEX Learning — one of Maryland’s online AP course providers, often has to dispel the myths about online learning, especially concerns that the classes won’t be as challenging.
“Students are required to synthesize concepts over multiple units. They’re not coming online to discuss ‘American Idol,'” Senan said.
While content issues were a concern at Woodlawn High, Morrison said the bigger problem was convincing school staff that online AP classes did not mean that the teachers were being “replaced by computers.”
All Maryland online AP classes have a mentor in the school evaluating student progress, as well as a distance teacher online.
“Even in the online courses we offer, we ensure that there is a face-to-face mentor,” said Ryan Imbriale, e-Learning specialist for Baltimore County Schools. “There is always a human on the other side of the instruction.”
Tim Lauer, the school’s only physics teacher and Haddad’s mentor, said that taking on the extra work to help the three AP Physics students was an easy decision.
“I like for them to have all the options available to them, even if that means it will take a little more of my time,” he said. “I like it too because we work problems together to make sure that they are on track. We establish that energy of doing really good physics.”