Apex Learning passes test in tough economy

Apex Learning passes test in tough economy

We may hear a lot about the dumbing down of American schools, but don’t ever let it be said that kids aren’t interested in ‘advancement’. In fact, says Dave Bowerman, director of external relations at Apex Learning (www.apexlearning.com, Bellevue, Washington), the company is experiencing rapid growth. In fact, Apex will unveil four new online AP courses this fall in response to customer requests, including AP Biology, AP Psychology, as well as AP. French and AP Spanish languages. Online courses have traditionally had a low completion rate, and this year, Apex will also offer a brand new Enrollment Kit that includes booklets and other information to make the online experience more ‘user friendly’ for tech coordinators, site coordinators, mentors, parents and students.

“We’ve definitely seen sales growth during the last twelve months,” according to Bowerman. “From a market perspective, we clearly think online courses are being adopted across the country.” Meanwhile, the company’s 2002 AP Exam Review product experienced a 60 percent increase in enrollments over the same time last year, from 39,000 to 64,000 enrollments. The AP Exam Review is designed to help students prepare for the AP Exams.

Apex is a privately held company with investments from Warburg Pincus, Vulcan Ventures, Edison Schools and Michigan State University. According to chief education officer Sue Collins, the company has three major product lines, online courses, classroom resources and exam resources. Its online courses can be distributed in two models, one in which online teachers lead the course, and the second with local teachers using the Apex-provided coursework. Classroom resources include Class Tools, online learning resources that help teachers with planning, presenting, assigning and assessing students throughout the year. AP Exam Review falls in the exam resources category, and is an individualized study plan and assessment tool for kids readying themselves for an AP Exam.

Dissecting the Online Experience

The new AP Biology course is the outgrowth of an ongoing alliance with the University of California College Prep Initiative (UCCP). The course materials were originally developed by UCCP and Science Media, and the two-semester course will be modified for Apex Learning’s online learning platform. According to Collins, Apex is “clearly interested” in identifying content that might be used for AP coursework in the future, but the goal is to find material that will work for students. She explains that Apex courses have built in monitoring features that keep track of how kids and schools are doing, because it serves no one if students drop out without completing the work.

“We come at this from a slightly different approach,” Collins notes. “We don’t look at it from a technology perspective. We ask what instruction works, we establish standards and a mix of activities that emulate what goes on in the classroom. We want to make sure there’s good instruction design. We want to add value to instruction.” Courses cost about $500 per 18-week semester, per student, and include instruction and online mentoring by an experienced teacher, with unlimited access to online course materials. Some courses require textbooks or special equipment at an additional cost. Schools can opt to supply their own local teacher, instead, and this significantly reduces the course costs.

Making sure these site-based teachers are up to speed also opens up the opportunity to offer professional development courses–since the new ESEA mandates for teacher training, professional development is one of the hottest fields in K-12 online learning. But while other education vendors are creating more generalized professional development materials, Apex has walked off with a highly-motivated group–those who are teaching AP courses. Additionally, Collins says that the professional development courses offered by Apex are not just meant to be refresher courses for AP teachers, they can also help on-site school mentors understand how AP tests are scored, the methodology behind the exams, and so forth.

Re-District-ing Sales Opportunities

So with all this growth, what are the challenges going forward? Collins explains that there’s been something of a shift in the sales opportunity. Last year, Apex had 31 state contracts of some sort, or 60 percent of states. These days, Collins says, states have begun to see Apex Learning’s offerings as being much more standard, which makes buying a local issue. “The decision making around it is moving more towards the district level,” Collins reveals, “and of course as that happens, we’re focusing more and more on what districts need, as opposed to what the states need.”

Apex Learning has been gearing up for district sales for about six months. The web site has been redesigned, and new marketing collateral geared more specifically to a district audience has also been developed. An inside sales force has begun calling districts, and Apex has also developed an outside sales force that is focusing specifically on district-level sales. At the same time, Apex Learning will continue to support its state customers at the same level it has in the past, according to the company.

Locally, Collins says it’s always easiest for a school to look to Apex as a supplier of courses that it just cannot offer. She believes AP is a great entry point, because in many cases, there are so few students in any one school looking to take a particular AP course–and yet educators clearly want advanced students to thrive. Collins says that for nearly half of the schools that offer Apex products, it is the only way these kids have access to AP courses.

In fact, says Bowerman, one of the challenges facing the company going forward is to continue to identify up and coming customer needs. Apex finds itself in an interesting position–as the only game in town for advanced placement courses and test review, it can simply respond to requests of customers eager to buy specific products.

But it isn’t as simple as identifying what kids need and want to know. It’s extremely important not only to get schools interested in purchasing a course, but to make sure the experience is positive for all involved. “We’re trying to ensure a good experience for students,” Collins reveals, “so that the schools will continue to be interested in the growth of kids taking courses online.”

Company Snapshot:

Company Name: Apex Learning

Headquarters: Bellevue, WA

Primary Business: Online courses and exam and classroom resources materials

Contact: Lisa Wolfe, L. Wolfe Communications, 312-494-0754, lwolfe@lwolfe.com

(For more on Apex Learning, see ISEM, October 2001)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Nelson B. Heller & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group