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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Interview with Cheryl Vedoe, Apex Learning: Innovators in E-Learning Series

Online learning for secondary education continues to evolve, and the curriculum developed is being used in innovative ways. Welcome to an interview with Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning, developer of curriculum and elearning solutions for secondary education.

What is your name and what is your involvement in e-learning?

I'm Cheryl Vedoe. I've been directly involved in the development and delivery of digital curriculum since joining Apex Learning as CEO in September 2002.

What is Apex Learning, and what is its mission and vision?

Founded in 1997, Apex Learning ( is one of the pioneers in online learning for secondary education. We are a team that is passionate about education and believe online learning can play a key role in helping schools differentiate instruction to address the unique needs of each student and increase educational opportunities for all students.

We offer a comprehensive digital curriculum that is widely used today in both distance-learning as well as brick-and-mortar classroom programs for original credit, credit-recovery, and intervention. We have designed our curriculum to offer multiple pathways to help schools meet the needs of all their students - from those not succeeding in traditional programs to those capable of accelerating their learning. Our Foundations courses offer structured remediation in math and English for transitioning middle school students as well as high school students not prepared for grade-level coursework. Our Core courses are standards-based courses designed to fully meet high school graduation requirements and prepare students for college and work. Our Honors courses are designed for motivated students who want opportunities to go beyond what is required. And finally – though this is really where we began – we offer College Board-authorized Advanced Placement courses.

What are your new initiatives?

Our most recent initiative in curriculum development is a new pathway - Literacy Advantage courses - specifically designed to support struggling readers to be successful in high school math, science, English and social studies courses. It is a startling fact that the majority of high school students read below grade level. For these students, the rigors of the required high school curriculum can be daunting. Nearly one-third of ninth graders will drop out before completing high school, and one of the most commonly cited reasons is the lack of literacy skills. With Literacy Advantage courses, schools can provide individualized learning experiences for these students, combining the instructional equivalent of a content area teacher side-by-side with a reading specialist.

Who do you consider to be the target audience? Why?

Our online courses are increasingly being used as the curriculum for instructional programs serving students who have not been successful in the traditional classroom. Regardless of whether the program is an alternative high school with students working on original credit or the focus is credit recovery to get students back on track for graduation, a consistent theme we hear is how difficult it is for these students - many of whom are struggling readers - to master grade level content. Too often, students become discouraged, their attendance declines, and, with a history of failure, they choose to drop out of high school. Literacy Advantage courses help support struggling readers to earn credits toward graduation in the required math, science, English and social studies courses while simultaneously developing their literacy skills.

What makes your approach effective? How do you know? What have you done to really test the efficacy of your approach?

When we published our first online course more than 10 years ago, there was certainly skepticism as to whether such a course could be as effective as the traditional classroom model of instruction. Our first courses were in Advanced Placement subjects, and widely used to provide opportunities to students who would not otherwise have access to AP courses. Students enrolled in Apex Learning online AP courses have consistently achieved scores on the College Board AP exams comparable to their peers in traditional AP classes. In fact, scores for online students have generally been above the national average. Literacy Advantage courses build on not only our extensive experience in developing and delivering effective online courses but also on the body of current research on adolescent literacy and recommendations from leading experts in literacy instruction.

Have recent changes in the way online learners interact changed anything about Apex Learning and/or your approach? (social networking, twitter, wikis, multimedia, voice boards, etc.)

We are solely focused on the development of digital curriculum. We make extensive use of multimedia to create situational interest to motivate students as well as to support and encourage them as they engage in learning. All our direct instruction incorporates multimedia — in the form of animations, images, audio, video, charts, graphs, and interactive exercises — along with text to present multiple representations of concepts as well as address different learning styles.

Please list and describe a few key benefits of using your new series of courses. Do you have any demos?

Literacy Advantage courses are standards-based high school courses that follow the same scope and sequence and cover the same rigorous academic content as our Core and Honors courses. What sets Literacy Advantage courses apart is the integrated literacy support to assist struggling readers in completing high school content area courses.

Accessible text helps students comprehend rigorous academic content. All text is written with controlled vocabulary and syntax. Text is chunked and scrolling limited. Students can choose to hear instructional text read aloud. New vocabulary is supported with rollover definitions and usage examples that feature audio and graphical representations of terms. Active reading and explicit vocabulary strategies help students simultaneously develop literacy skills to bring them to grade level.

Please describe upcoming activities.

Four Literacy Advantage courses - Algebra I, Physical Science, English I and U.S. Government and Politics - will be available for the 2009-2010 school year. Our recently-announced English Foundations I course, designed for high school students reading below basic, will be available for summer school programs this June. In addition, new math courses specific to California, Florida, and Georgia will be available.

What kind of assessment strategy do you use?

Assessment opportunities – including formative, summative and diagnostic assessments – are integrated throughout Apex Learning online courses. Each lesson begins with the learning objectives. Assessments address those learning objectives and are specifically designed to test students at various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Formative and diagnostic assessments provide opportunities to gauge student progress on an ongoing basis. Summative assessments require students to demonstrate what they have learned at the end of each unit and semester.

Why did you focus on that particular assessment? How does it meet the needs of students?

Diagnostic assessments. Unit-level diagnostic assessments provide valuable information on student strengths and weaknesses to both students and teachers. Automatically-generated, personalized study plans guide students to relevant instructional content based on identified areas for improvement.

Formative assessments. True learning requires students to constantly think about and evaluate what they are doing whether they’re reading, listening, watching, interacting, exploring, discussing or writing. This reflective mindset is supported by formative assessment opportunities throughout the instructional content. These include both scored and unscored assessments that give students continuous feedback.

Summative assessments. Students are required to demonstrate what they have learned through unit tests and semester exams. Apex Learning online courses utilize objective computer-scored test instruments and more subjective open-ended, teacher-scored testing tools to evaluate higher order and critical thinking skills.

Optional question: Do you see any applications of Apex Learning for developing online courses for technical / professional development?

It's interesting to note that although we are one of the leading developers of online courses for secondary education, we have not to date developed nor used online courses for professional development. As is true of most curriculum providers, we deliver professional development to the schools that use our digital curriculum.

We train both teachers and administrators on our courses and learning management system as well as on best practices to ensure a successful implementation to achieve each program's educational objectives. We have found that one of the most effective professional development models is for our education consultants to spend time in classrooms in one-on-one coaching and mentoring with teachers. While we believe there may not be an effective online substitute for that one-on-one in-person touch, we are now developing our first online professional development course to deliver some of the more basic training and serve as a resource teachers can go back to when they need a refresher.

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