Davidson College Reaches High School AP Students With Digital Tools

May 26, 2015

The rise of iPads and laptops in the classroom has people scrambling to figure out the best way to represent knowledge and teach students using this medium. There’s an explosion of online materials geared for learning, but developing good ones is still something of an art and an experiment. Davidson College is undertaking such a project using CMS students as its guinea pigs.  

Ardrey Kell High School Senior Vishnu Menon is a diligent student. He has reviewed for his Advanced Placement final exam by going through his textbook co-written by Paul Krugman. 

“I’m sure he’s a great economist, I just don’t think he’s a great textbook writer,” says Menon.   

For something of a break he turns to an online video of a guy in a Hawaiian shirt.

“I’d like you to think about the largest shopping mall in your area or Econoland…” begins Dick Rankin, an Economics Teacher of the Year winner from Hawaii. 

Animated equations pop us as he speaks. You can speed him up, or slow him down, while also reading the scrolling text of his four minute talk on aggregate demand.  

Credit Davidson Next

Rankin is one of more than 40 AP veterans and professors who came to Davidson this past year to record sessions on Advanced Placement Physics, Calculus, and Macroeconomics.

Davidson Economics Professor Clark Ross is one of the editors of the project called Davidson Next. He has helped write and grade AP exams for years.   

“What we’ve tried to do in each of these three subjects is to identify fourteen concepts that are both critically important, but frequently a little bit difficult to learn,” says Ross. 

Dolores Gende stands in front of a video camera and production crew, explaining the relationship between velocity and acceleration. She has taught physics for over 30 years, but never in front of a camera. A piece of paper hangs from the camera with a big, crooked smiley face as a reminder. She’s filming six hours on this day, to come up with thirty minutes worth of video segments. 

Veteran AP teacher Dolores Gende presents her lesson not in front of her students, but a camera.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

“It’s a little intimidating, just talking to a camera. I want to think I’m talking to my students, but they’re too old to be my students,” laughs Gende gesturing to the crew.   

Davidson Next isn't just videos, but also includes graphing exercises, multiple choice and essay questions, and discussion forums. It's not meant to be a whole course. Teachers can have students tackle sections at home before they teach them, or use them as they introduce a concept in the classroom.   

“They also can sort-of say to the class, ‘Today we’re bringing in this virtual guest lecturer,’ so that the teacher doesn’t really have to say, ‘This is an area I don’t know very well,’” says Ross.

That happens with some AP subjects where teachers who, say, mainly teach civics or history may have to cover an economics class.

Davidson College received a $1.8 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to design the materials. They will be free partly so that students at poorly-funded schools have access to more support.

Davidson is one of many higher education institutions trying to influence k-12 education this way. 

“New technology gives us the opportunity to work with partners to create curricula that could reach hundreds of thousands, even millions of students, and enables us to extend our reach and to improve the quality of high school education in these really crucial subjects,” says Davidson College President Carol Quillen.   

It’s also not bad for a school’s visibility.

Teachers have long used online materials in the classroom to help taylor teaching to accommodate students’ varying levels of knowledge and learning styles, as well as a way to simply bring in more resources like videos and articles.

NYU Professor Leslie Santee Siskin studies this increasing reliance on digital tools in the classroom. She says in the beginning, developers had the technical knowledge, but didn’t tap the teaching experts. She sees that changing.

“That’s pretty exciting to see the developers finding ways to gather more information back from educators about what did and didn’t work, why and why didn’t it work and how it could work better,” says Siskin. 

That’s where CMS students and teachers come in. Junior Juliana Gines is also in Ardrey Kell’s AP Macroeconomics course.   

“Sometimes you feel like beating a deadhorse, but other times, if you don’t actually understand, it’s really helpful. The videos are really good,” says Gines.

Ardrey Kell Junior Juliana Gines and her class use the Davidson tools to study for the Macroeconomics final exam.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

Senior Vishnu Menon gives Davidson Next his approval. He plans to study computer science in college, but still sees nothing wrong with staying offline.

“In my psych class, we just have textbook readings. It’s a great textbook and we read in the textbook at home and I don’t necessarily know if anyone is learning any less in that class than in this class,” says Menon.   

However, teachers say for these AP courses students are more likely to use the online tools than read the textbook.   

Anyone will be able to access the Davidson materials for no fee beginning this fall.