AP Courses Go Virtual—and Millions Attend
College Board turns to YouTube Live to help students impacted by coronavirus school closures finish their classes
Some of the best Advanced Placement® teachers in the country have taken their talents online to help students working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. With many school districts making a quick shift to online education, the College Board launched a series of live AP courses on YouTube, giving millions of students a way to stay connected.
The physics instructors have been perfecting their webcam dance moves. The music theory teachers had to get an exemption from YouTube's copyright algorithm so they could sample popular songs without being locked out of their accounts. And everyone had to calibrate their usual jokes and classroom banter to a massive online audience they couldn't see.
"Teaching online is really more like stage acting," said Jeff Olson, College Board chief data officer. "You have to amp up your personality that much more because you're getting no real-time feedback from anyone. Cheesiness and whimsy seem to play well."
Behind all of that on-screen whimsy was a nine-day sprint by Olson's technology team and the AP Program to identify great teachers ready to help, set them up with new equipment, and test the whole system. With school districts from Maine to California sending students home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the online classes provide a resource that students can access individually or that other AP teachers can assign as part of their remote instruction.
A selection of some of the AP classes currently available on YouTube. More are added every day.
"We're all in this very unusual circumstance, where there's been huge disruption to what students' normal instruction looks like," said Auditi Chakravarty, who leads the College Board Learning, Evaluation, and Research division. "This isn't meant to replace a student's connection with their AP teacher. We know that bond is still there—students still have their own class, and these online classes are a supplement to that."
Many teachers are already offering their own at-home assignments or remote teaching, but AP leaders decided there was value in having a set of shared classes taught live, on a regular schedule, where students could either tune in together or watch recordings later. "Live instruction is very effective in terms of student outcomes," Olson said. "People are more likely to show up and pay attention if there's a specific time they need to do something, if there’s this sense of a shared experience."
So far, there have been more than 1.7 million views of the online classes, with tens of thousands tuning in for most of the live sessions. So many classes were brought online at the same time that YouTube initially shut the channel down.
"I think they worried we might be spamming their site," Olson said. "They're used to having YouTube celebrities posting one or two livestreams at a time, and we came in with dozens of livestreamed classes all at once. They told us they’d never seen the platform used this way, but they were really excited."
Some of the teachers have already earned meme status. AP Physics teacher John Frensley bopping along to the intro music in his headset. AP Calculus teacher Mark Kiraly changing his background image to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.
AP Calculus teacher Mark Kiraly used the Millenium Falcon cockpit as his background while teaching the virtual AP Calculus AB class Verifying Solutions for Differential Equations.
"They're learning as they go, getting better each day," Chakravarty said of the AP teachers. "All of them are amazing, and they have their own students from their classrooms that they're thinking about. This is really just extending out from their classrooms to many thousands of others."
The drive to help salvage a badly disrupted academic year comes directly from student feedback. More than 9 in 10 AP students surveyed over the past few weeks wanted the chance to finish out their classes and take their exams, even amid all the disruption of school closures and social distancing.
"The only real preference that I have is that they still happen," one student wrote back to the AP team doing the survey. "I know that myself and others have poured a lot of hard work into preparing for these tests, hoping to gain college credit, and to learn now that it was all for nothing would be very disheartening. Despite this terrible virus, and the now more than two weeks of preparation and learning that are void because of it, I still definitely want the ability to take the AP Exams I have spent hours upon hours preparing for, even if that testing experience is different than in past years."
AP Government and Politics teacher Jennifer Hitchcock leads a virtual class on political parties.
It will definitely be a different experience. Schools across the country remain closed, and reopening by exam time looks doubtful. College Board is taking the unprecedented step of building an online, at-home exam for AP courses that will consist entirely of free-response questions.
"It's a direct response to AP students sharing with us their commitment to showcasing what they've learned in AP this year, even in the wake of this pandemic," wrote College Board CEO David Coleman. "It wouldn't be possible without the amazing AP teachers who stepped up to support students with enthusiasm and sensitivity."