Which schools offer free online courses

Flexible advanced level : How an online high school expands the educational offer

Schools in Germany have tried distance teaching and online learning since the beginning of the corona pandemic - with more or less success. In addition to the lack of technical equipment, there is often a lack of professional software and didactic know-how in the design of digital learning environments. From an international perspective, not all school systems are so badly positioned that they have to convert lessons to digital operation in the shortest possible time. Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen, in an international comparison, many school systems that specifically use digitization to promote educational processes in a professional manner - especially for disadvantaged and poorly accessible target groups.

Tailor-made educational offers for young people in different situations

In the following, we will use the example of UC Scout, the online high school of the US state of California, to explain how distance learning can be implemented in a cost-effective manner in order to provide tailor-made educational offers for students in very different situations. Not only in terms of technology and media didactics, but also against the background of the goal of greater educational equality, those responsible for education in the German federal states can be inspired by UC Scout.

"Scout" - is what the US state of California calls the online school it developed in cooperation with the University of California (UC). The program was launched in 1999, then called UC College Prep, and has been known by its current name and format since 2012. UC Scout offers high school courses that meet the admission requirements of the State University of California and California State University (CSU) and were developed on the basis of the California curriculum. Accordingly, all courses meet the requirements of the state of California for California schools.

All courses also allow exams to be taken that are recognized for high school graduation.

UC Scout is not a “classic” high school and does not want to replace the schools in California, but rather supplement the existing educational offer with online courses. There are currently a total of 65 courses in history / social studies, English, math, science, foreign languages, visual arts and music. Additional courses in subjects such as law, economics, environmental sciences or psychology offer an initial scientific insight into these areas and thus serve as a guide to career and study choices. A total of 26 courses are offered at the advanced level, the so-called "Advanced Placement" (AP). These courses, which are aimed at particularly motivated and talented learners, are of a consistently high level and are ideal for enrichment (expansion of the curriculum) and acceleration (accelerated completion of the curriculum).

All courses also allow exams to be taken that are recognized for high school graduation. The AP courses are certified by the "College Board" of the USA and are recognized as credits at the university in the first semester.

Access to UC Scout is deliberately very low-threshold and democratic for students in the California school system. Since one of the central goals of UC Scout is to overcome the educational injustice surrounding university access, there is no formal application process. Pupils can register for a course relatively flexibly in certain time corridors in the school year or also for the summer and start learning. Teachers in California also have free access to the videos and assignments of the courses and can use them in their own lessons or make them digitally accessible to their students via the learning platform.

The learners work independently and receive formative feedback from tutors

The program is funded by the State of California through tax revenue, so California public school students and teachers can participate completely free of charge. Teachers and students at private schools in California and schools outside of California pay a small fee for the courses.

Interested parties can choose between three packages: Basic, Plus and On Demand. Basic and Plus are completely free and are mainly used by students in California schools and their teachers. The learners work independently in the learning management system "Canvas" (also available as an app) in the courses, which are made up of high-quality videos and competence-oriented tasks, and receive feedback from teachers at their respective schools who log into the system. Teachers also use the materials such as video lectures, competence-oriented tasks and tests for their lessons at school or to digitally check the performance progress of the learners. The digital formats offered in the courses are elaborately produced by UC Scout and made available to the teachers of the school system for use.

There is a fee for the on-demand variant, which is typically booked by students outside the California system. In this way, UC Scout finances its own teaching staff, the UC Scout tutors, who lead the courses and give feedback on the tasks. In the courses, the students also work on examination tasks, which are then given points and earned for the course credits. These courses, which last one or two semesters, are offered online to the participants via a Scouts Learning Management System (LMS) and are completed with exams and certificates recognized by other schools and universities.

The courses also close learning gaps

UC Scout was founded with the goal of giving all of California's nearly two million high school students the opportunity to attend high quality courses in preparation for university. The number of participants in the courses is steadily increasing, and the students choose UC Scout for several reasons: For example, because the corresponding courses are not offered at their own high school or because there are schedule clashes if they all courses at their high school School you are interested in. In addition, UC Scout's courses are often used to fill in gaps and acquire key courses for college or university application. During the corona pandemic, the pupils attend a particularly large number of courses: leisure and sports activities are omitted so that they can use the additional time to pursue their academic interests.

For the students, UC Scout also offers the advantage that they can work on the courses whenever it fits into their daily routine.

UC Scout offers plenty of advantages. The schools use the materials and the UC Scout platform to offer special additional offers (e.g. additional foreign language or special science courses) for which they would not have the resources. UC Scout was and is a valuable source for elaborately produced teaching materials, especially in the rapid changeover from classroom to distance teaching during the corona pandemic. The format also ensures high-quality education and optimal preparation for university for all California students, regardless of which high school they attend and where they live. For the students, UC Scout also offers the advantage that they can work on the courses whenever it suits their daily routine. In addition, they can learn at their own pace, which will suit both high-performing students and those who want to repeat certain topics over and over in order to understand them.

The biggest advantage of UC Scout is the fact that the program was not developed due to the current corona pandemic, but has been systematically developed and expanded for a long time. Based on the experience already gained, the courses are regularly updated and new offers are added. Very current courses such as “Introduction to Robotic Engineering” or a course on the introduction to the Java programming language have recently been added.

Current scientific findings on online teaching are used for the further development of the courses so that the courses correspond to the current state of scientific didactics. These findings include, for example, the maximum length of time a video can be so that the learners follow in a concentrated manner, or how teachers can optimally reach their students online.

There are also similar offers in Canada and Australia

In addition to UC Scout, there are other tried and tested and above all state-certified programs that successfully digitally expand the school education program. In Canada, where digitization has been used to improve education for many years, every province has such an offer. For example, there is the Alberta Distance Learning Center, which provides free resources for students and teachers in this province. The Ontario eSecondary School also offers free online courses for Canadian students. International students can also use this program for a course fee. Palliser Beyond Borders is another Canadian format for distance education. Australia has the longest tradition: The Alice Springs School of the Air has existed in Australia since 1951, which brings lessons for schoolchildren - now digitally - to remote locations in Australia.

UC Scout makes it clear that online lessons can be implemented effectively and successfully in order to expand the educational offer and close educational gaps. The families' financial situation is irrelevant because all students have free access to high-quality education. Such a model would also be conceivable for Germany - or at least individual federal states - in order to support and relieve the teachers and to offer all pupils a flexible and expanded educational offer with the new possibilities of digitization.