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November 15, 2001
Online AP Courses
Are Not the Answer

By. Phyllis Kuehn Professor of Educational Research
California State University Fresno, Calif

FRESNO STATE -- Teachers in South Dakota say that it was a lack of motivation and discipline that led to a dismal completion rate for high-school students taking online Advanced Placement courses .

A more important factor is that many students who are college-bound are in reality not prepared for the language tasks (reading, writing, listening, note taking) that they face at the college level.

Both native speakers of English and second-language learners may have good spoken-English skills, but many -- despite success in high-school studies -- have low academic-language proficiency.

Academic language, the kind of language used in college textbooks and lectures, is distinctly different from the spoken language of everyday social interactions.

Sentences are more complex, and vocabulary is more sophisticated and abstract. Students who lack good academic language, as is the case with nearly 50 percent of the students entering my institutional system, have trouble comprehending texts, lectures, and tests.

The solution is not to offer expensive online courses so that schools can boast about offering A.P. courses when these courses set students up for failure. School systems need to assess and address students' language needs in high school (or earlier) so that students develop the academic language they need to succeed in college.

It's hardly a surprise that students lack motivation and discipline when the text they are trying to read is barely comprehensible. This was not a "great experience" for students who failed, as is claimed by a guidance counselor. Despite the high failure rate, South Dakota schools plan to spend even more on the online A.P. program next year.

Common sense dictates spending funds instead on making sure that students have the academic-language skills they need for A.P. and college classes.

[Editor's Note: The writer's column is a personal reflection based upon an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, "South Dakota Finds Mixed Results With Online A.P. Courses," on May 25, 2001].

©1846-2001 All rights reserved.

Online Course
Examines Great Cities
Throughout History

By Brock Read, Chronicle of Higher Education

Cities, according to W. Donald McTaggart, are "crucibles" in which art, literature, commerce, and technology are developed and fused. In a two-part online course on the history of the world's cities, Mr. McTaggart, an emeritus professor of geography at Arizona State University, asks students to explore how these crucibles have developed, and how they exert such an influence on those who inhabit them.

The course, "Cities of the World," was traditionally offered in a lecture-hall setting by Arizona State's geography department. But when its instructor retired and the course lapsed, Mr. McTaggart -- who lives in Albuquerque and now teaches some classes at New Mexico State University -- took it on as a distance-learning project.

When he began teaching the course, Mr. McTaggart says, he felt that the future of geographic study was in information
technology -- in CD-ROM atlases and in online databases and maps. Although online geography has been slow to develop, he says, the Web still includes a wealth of useful material. He has made that material one of the centerpieces of his teaching: Students in the class must download free mapping software so that they can view maps and often-complex sets of geographic data.

Each section of the course lasts one semester. In the first semester, Mr. McTaggart covers cities in ancient and medieval Europe and Asia. He also touches on more recent developments, including the explosion of industrial metropolises in England and the effects of cities planted by Europe's imperialist nations in Africa. The second part of the course focuses on urban growth and development in the Americas.

Title: "Cities of the World I"

Institution: Arizona State University

Instructor: W. Donald McTaggart, an emeritus professor of geography

Course content: The course explores "the city as a phenomenon which has supported various forms of development that have contributed to civilization," according to Mr. McTaggart. Its main emphases are geographic and historical, but it also draws on elements of art history and architecture. "The central objective," he says, "is to make people think about the city in a way they haven't before."

How delivered: The semester-long course is divided into weekly lessons, which typically consist of a chapter from a textbook and additional materials on the Web site, which include notes, maps, graphs, and photographs.

Mr. McTaggart and his students regularly open threads on the course's discussion board, where they converse about issues drawn from the texts and from current events. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, students began to talk about the vulnerability of cities and the nature of Afghanistan's cities in relation to the nation's countryside.

Course requirements: Every 10 days, students turn in short assignments in response to the readings and online information. At the end of the semester, they complete term papers based on independent research into topics of their choosing. Some term papers take an in-depth look at the history or arrangement of a particular city. Others are comparative studies: Several students have chosen two cities that have suffered from major natural disasters and analyzed the cities' responses.

When offered: The first section of the course meets in the fall, the second in the spring.

Enrollment: Mr. McTaggart estimates that about 45 students complete the course each year.

Instructor comment: For Mr. McTaggart, online learning's greatest boon is its flexibility. The current educational ethos is one of customization, he says, and distance education offers students the most customizable education. "We don't think of a course as creating an experience that will be identical for all students," he says. "Internet courses allow that flexibility to play out."

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