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Will MITx bring about the end of AP?

January 3, 2012

MITx, the new hotness in online learning has been making big news for how it might totally revolutionize university credentialing. In this post, I’d like to talk an alternative tack and think about how it might revolutionize college admissions and bring about the end of AP, something I’ve been known to fantasize about before.

Put yourself in the role of a high school student, wondering if you should take an AP course What’s your incentive for taking that class. It’s a college level course; doesn’t that look good for college? Sure—problem is, more and more colleges are finding those AP courses to be poor substitutes for real college courses. Too many AP courses emphasize memorization, fact-reguration and mile-wide breadth over depth and understanding. Too many students with 5’s in subjects like AP calculus, chemistry and physics skip over the intro course only to get eaten alive in the next course of calculus, organic chemistry or advanced physics. Many high school AP teachers find themselves stretched by a shortened schedule, large enrollments and overflowing syllabus, and they often have to make significant sacrifices—omitting the 10-page research paper or shortchanging the lab experience. More and more, college admissions officers are seeing these AP courses as more of the same, thus it takes more and more AP’s to be impressive. Once, even a single AP course was impressive on the transcript. Now 8 or more are commonplace, and it often takes 10 to really start to stand out at elite colleges. Many college departments have already given up, and stopped awarding anything other than general credit for high AP scores, and put policies in place to prevent students from skipping a perquisite via AP credit. Perhaps most disheartening of all, the constant emphasis on “take the most rigorous curriculum possible” which students and parents have mis-translated into “take as many APs as possible” has erased any signal of interest that taking an AP subject might once have indicated. Does taking AP Chemistry and scoring a 5 mean you are passionate about the subject and might go on to major in it in college? Rarely. It could just as often mean you spent thousands of dollars with a high priced NYC tutor cramming every weekend during the months of March and April.

But wait—wasn’t the whole point of starting AP back in the 1950s to let talented high school students do college level work while still in high school? Yes, and if colleges had then internet back in 1950, they would have created MITx-equivalents instead. Let’s assume that MITx ends up offering courses that really are closely matched to their real MIT equivalents. Note that this is entirely up in the air right now, and Stanford’s recent experiment in online learning have drawn some criticism as being watered down. Suddenly, MITx is offering the introductory science course you were considering taking as an AP, but this time, it’s a real college class. You’ll receive instruction (via video, of course) from a real MIT professor, and take real MIT assignments, graded by real MIT robots (or something like that). If you’re an admissions officer at MIT, don’t you think this data might be a little bit useful in helping you to determine which students might most take advantage of the opportunity of attending MIT? At least for the time being, you’ve already got a few data points in this direction from the fact that the student found and enrolled in this program completely in his/her own free time, instead of simply signing up for a course at school.

If MITx ends up turning out real college courses that are challenging and well-taught, I have no doubt that an MIT admissions officer would see an “A” or whatever top-level credential in the MITx course as vastly superior to the 5 in the “equivalent” AP course. Moreover, I bet the admissions office starts begging MITx to open up their database so that they can datamine the day-by-day progress of students in their courses and identify top prospects for MIT. Really, MITx is just a MIT farm team for talented high school studnets. And the cost to MIT is almost nothing—MITx will probably end up making serious money either via donations, or whatever “nominal fee” they plan to charge for credentials. Now, you’ve got students paying to be on your farm team.

If this happens, the College Board and the AP program become irrelevant. If MIT wants to find great students, they can just recruit them from the top echelon of MITx. If they want to innovate the intro physics course, they don’t have to wait for the College Board to go through some lengthy 5 year review and revision process—they simply edit the content of their courses for the next semester. Of course, there are lots of challenges that will need to be worked out, and they’ll have to come up with a way to keep this guy from signing up to take an MITx for someone wanting to cheat their way into MIT, but I think this could be easily overcome (maybe they’ll integrate with facebook, and you’ll be able to do sophisticated response analysis to verify the identity of students). But when all this is done, who’s going to pay $87 to sit for a dinosaur of an AP test one day in May and hold that up as their holy grail of college admissions worthiness?

This also spells trouble for many AP teachers. If the AP is your gold standard, you live and die by every change in the acorn book, and your most prized value is the crazy percentage of students who earn 5’s in your course, what happens that 5 becomes truly meaningless? I think this could be the greatest opportunity of all—freed from the shackles of the AP syllabus, what could teachers do? Could they create courses that seek out deep understanding, emphasize collaboration, offer frequent face-to-face interaction with an expert instructor who can personalize the course to suit individual students’s needs and tastes? I think so, and this is something that MITx will never be able to replace.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2012 8:30 pm

    The idea of a school-specific “little league” college, university “farm “school, or a college “feeder” program is kind of scary… makes it seem like major league sports.

    • January 3, 2012 8:47 pm

      Yes, indeed. In many ways, schools already use their campuses over the summer as farm teams—take Harvard Summer School, JHU CTY, or Duke’s TIP. While these programs can be great experiences for students, they are mostly cash cows for the university. Rarely, do they wind up making big impacts in college admissions, either, though many students think going to Harvard Summer School is a ticket to admission to Harvard (I should know, since this is what my idiot 17 year old self desperately wanted to believe all the way up to the think envelope from 02138). This is also a good reminder than extraordinary accomplishments aside, it is almost never the case that doing 1 thing can earn you admission to college.

  2. January 3, 2012 8:33 pm

    But wait, MITx does not offer any college credit. Also, some states are already paying for the AP courses. It does not cost the students anything to take the course or the test.

    • January 3, 2012 8:51 pm

      Credit is far less of an issue than it used to be. Colleges are becoming way more stingy about offering credit for APs, and with the bad economy and all the fun to be had at college, very few students use the credits to graduate early anyway. So you’re right, MIT won’t give you credit, but that’s not what many students will be seeking when they take MITx courses. And it’s also true some states pay for APs. I still think students who find themselves in a course chained to the AP syllabus are paying with their time and having to sit for a 3 hour test. If the online course really does mirror the college course, and you can take it from the comfort of your recliner, why not do that?

  3. rwistar permalink
    January 13, 2012 11:00 am

    I am most intrigued by the part of your post that talks about making the architecture available to other teachers in college or K-12 who want to offer the same online experience to other students. As a teacher of chronically underenrolled computer science courses, I’ve often wondered if I could knock down the walls of my classroom and offer the curriculum to students at other schools. Maybe this program will allow me to do that!

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