Scout as Provider of Online High-School Courses for UC System

Scout is the University of California’s online high school program: we increase access to college prep courses. Universities have historically done an excellent job of helping the already-successful continue and improve upon their success. Over time, as attitudes shifted away from “higher ed is only for some” to “higher ed is for all,” we in higher education have come to realize, first, that a great disparity in access to higher education exists; second, those inequities do not begin at the university level; and third, we are not powerless to respond to this reality. The University of California (UC) operates a variety of programs designed to address inequity in California’s K-12 system, and Scout began as a way to address the unequal distribution of access to AP courses in our public schools. Broadly, one high school might offer 20 AP courses, while another might offer just two. Over the years, however, it turned out that there was a need for non-AP courses as well. Originally, Scout produced courses on CD-ROMs that could be sent to schools, though now Scout offers AP and non-AP courses online. Most of our students take courses with Scout because they want a course their school does not offer, they have a scheduling conflict, they have failed a course and want to get back on track by next semester, or they want to take a course over the summer.

The UC system is not unique in supporting pre-matriculation students to both graduate from high school and prepare for college, but the sheer scope of our efforts, known collectively as Student Academic Preparation and Educational Partnerships (SAPEP) programs, may be. . Consider just some of the K-12 SAPEP programs that that the UC operates:

  • California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS)
  • California Subject Matter Project
  • CalTeach (teacher preparation)
  • Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP)
  • Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP)
  • Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA)
  • Principal Leadership Institute
  • The Puente Project (college readiness)
  • SummerUp (intensive summer math program)
  • Transcript Evaluation Service (early identification of students who are close to meeting eligibility requirements)
  • UC Links (after-school programs)
  • UC Curriculum Integration (blending academic prep and CTE)
  • Scout from University of California

According to the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), in the 2015-16 academic year “more than 188,000 students, 52,000 parents and 13,000 teachers, counselors and administrators participated in SAPEP programs.” So, Scout is not unique in that UC operates plenty of pre-matriculation programs. But, since 1999, Scout has been addressing a very specific need: increased access to “a-g” approved courses. These courses are approved by the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS).

Any California high school student who wants to attend a UC or California State University (CSU) has to meet certain minimum eligibility requirements, including a set number of classes from each of the following seven categories:

  • History/social science (“a”)
  • English (“b”)
  • Mathematics (“c”)
  • Laboratory science (“d”)
  • Language other than English (“e”)
  • Visual and performing arts (“f”)
  • College-preparatory electives (“g”)

Additionally, in order to meet the admission requirements, a course first has to be submitted to UC for review before it is granted a-g approval, and each California high school maintains a publicly viewable list of its a-g approved classes. This practice has led to some unique challenges and problems that Scout helps to address.

It is important to understand that Scout is not a high school, and we do not seek to replace public high schools in California. We are a high school program, and we exist to supplement the courses available at a student’s home school and provide curriculum to California’s public school teachers. To that end, Scout offers two main options: one in which we provide the curriculum to schools and teachers so they can run the courses themselves, and another in which we provide teachers (all UC employees). When it comes to Scout providing teachers, we make our courses affordable by enrolling students from all over the state—and, indeed, the world—and putting them in a class together. We created this model to cover costs and keep tuition low, with the added advantage of exposing students to a broad array of perspectives and experiences. A group project with students from Sacramento, Bakersfield, Kansas City, Miami, and Moscow? Yes, please!

While there are a few high schools in California that do not offer all the a-g approved courses that a student would need in order to meet eligibility requirements, those schools are few and far between; most schools do offer enough a-g approved courses to meet the minimum eligibility requirements for UC. But just because a high school offers a course doesn’t mean that a student can take it. Most of our students come to Scout for the following reasons: scheduling conflicts; enrollment caps, summer school, credit recovery, or a course is unavailable at their school.


Scheduling Conflicts. If AP Macroeconomics and Honors Band are both offered 5th period, students have to make a choice—but with Scout, they can take both courses. Similarly, student athletes who have practice or away games can take classes at times that are more convenient for them.


Enrollment Caps. This is one of the dirty little secrets of public education in California: a school may be proud of its deep catalog of classes offered, but just because a school offers a class does not mean that all students are allowed to enroll in it. Legitimate classroom space, staffing, and prerequisite issues can play a role here. Sometimes prerequisites can serve primarily as enrollment management, keeping enrollments low in advanced courses. In such cases, prerequisites serve a gatekeeping role rather than giving as many students as possible the requisite knowledge and skills to succeed in advanced courses. Some schools use GPA barriers to keep students out of advanced courses, or they require a test in which only the top 25 students are allowed to take a particular class. Such approaches do not sit well with us here at Scout; we exist primarily to help increase access.


Course Not Offered at School.   This reason is fairly self-explanatory: if a student is interested in, say, psychology, but their high school doesn’t offer a psychology class, they can take it online with Scout.


Summer School. Traditionally, summer school has been reserved for credit recovery, but with Scout, districts can now offer students the chance not just to catch up, but to actually get ahead.


Credit Recovery. In some schools, credit recovery is accomplished via “packet courses,” where successful completion of a packet of worksheets is rewarded with credit for a class previously failed. By contrast, Scout courses are academically rigorous as well as designed to maximize the chances for student success. About once a month, we get a call from someone who is very upset because the courses are hard. Usually, they were expecting a kind of digital packet, where the student burns through the work for credit. Likewise, Scout does not allow “testing out” of our courses, and the exams that we provide are all proctored to ensure the integrity of the learning. Students who need credit recovery are not limited to their school’s schedule—they can get started with a Scout course today.


Challenges Facing Scout

Outreach Challenges. One of Scout’s most significant challenges is, for lack of a better term, brand awareness. With over 1,300 high schools in the state, outreach is a critical part of our mission. Our outreach team engages in site visits to schools and districts, staffing booths at conferences, presenting at conferences, and social media campaigns. But what does it really mean to visit a school? Meeting with a counselor at a high school does not automatically result in all the counselors in the department developing an understanding of the resources Scout offers. Similarly, meeting with a principal, superintendent, or school board does not guarantee that awareness of Scout will be disseminated throughout a school district.

Even if someone at a school is enthusiastic about Scout, our cause becomes just one more thing on their to-do list—and most teachers, counselors, and administrators at public schools are already spread too thin. While some schools put entire classes of students into a Scout course, other schools might only enroll one or two students a semester. And whenever something is not used regularly, it is easy to forget about. We don’t have a huge budget for leave-behinds, like coffee mugs and t-shirts, like some of our for-profit competitors, so it’s generally up to our outreach team to find creative ways of making sure we stay at the forefront of our schools’ minds.


Curriculum Challenges: Science. Science classes provide a unique challenge for Scout. The Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), the committee charged with, among other things, establishing the requirements for a-g approval, has determined that in order to meet area “d” requirements, wet labs must comprise at least 20% of a science course. Although there was a time when virtual labs were acceptable, BOARS currently does not permit virtual labs to be used to satisfy the wet lab requirement. Further, lab kits—pre-boxed supplies that one can purchase from third-party companies, often used by homeschooling families—are not allowed. Likewise, kitchen science, the practice of designing science-themed activities using consumables commonly found in a home kitchen, such as water, vinegar, oil, sugar, etc., is also not allowed. So, when students take a Scout science course, wet labs are usually completed at their home schools, and they turn in a lab report afterward for grading by their Scout teacher.

BOARS also needs to find a way of addressing the issue of wet labs in sciences where computer simulations take the place of wet labs. For example, astrophysicists do not actually smash stars together in their labs; they use computer simulations to conduct their experiments. The Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, George Blumenthal, is an astrophysicist, and I would not want to explain to the chancellor that astrophysics is not a real science, since it does not use hands-on wet labs.


Curriculum Challenges: Computer Science. Is computer science a legitimate science? That depends on who you ask. Scout is a state-wide and system-wide program, charged with serving all of California, though we are physically located at the UC Santa Cruz campus in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. One common lament among those here in the Valley is that UC gives computer science short shrift by only permitting it to satisfy area “g” elective credit, rather than area “d” science credit. This, however, is untrue. BOARS policy actually allows some computer science classes to be approved for area “d” (although the majority are approved for area “g”). The distinction hinges on whether or not the computer science class contains enough math to meet the area “d” requirements; those that do can be approved for area “d.” Those that do not can be approved for area “g”.

The distinction is an important and commonly misunderstood one, but it’s also a bit of a moot point for Scout at the moment because online labs are not allowed to satisfy area “d” requirements. That potentially could lead to strange outcomes. According to current BOARS policy, for example, a student might take 80% of a Scout computer science class online, but the student would then have complete the lab requirement at his or her local school.

One possible solution to this policy corner we’ve painted ourselves into would involve a minor change to current policy, which might consist of a one-sentence coda to current policy that reads something like this: “Generally, virtual labs do not satisfy web lab requirements, but an exception is made for science disciplines where virtual labs or computer programming are the primary way in which scientists conduct experiments in that discipline.”


Curriculum Challenges: Visual and Performing Arts. For years, Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) courses (area “f”) could not be completed online, per BOARS policy. However, UC’s most popular undergraduate online class is a dance class taught by the head of the department at UCLA. In light of this inconsistency and increased acceptance of digital art as actual art, the BOARS committee changed their policy last year, and now online VAPA courses are eligible to be considered for area “f” approval.


Legitimacy Challenges. Just as years ago the Luddites smashed cotton mills and the New York Times opposed a new invention called the telephone, online education will always have its detractors. One approach to developing pedagogically sound online classes involves asking the instructor to imagine teaching a course in which there were no lectures or videos. What projects, assignments, readings, and activities would instructors assign so that the students would master the subject? After the lecture-free course is designed, what concepts are actually better conveyed via lecture or video? In other words, the goal of modern online classes is not to squeeze all target knowledge into a video (that’s a documentary), but to flip the traditional model of passive reception of knowledge to one of active discovery of, and engagement with, target knowledge.

Scout employs a team of teachers as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who all have the appropriate credentials to teach their respective subjects in California, an instructional design team, and a video production team. The three groups coordinate efforts and build Scout’s online courses collaboratively.

Another common objection to online education is that instructors will become superfluous. This could not be further from the truth; the online instructor is responsible for designing engaging lessons, projects, and activities, keeping students engaged, providing timely feedback, facilitating message board discussions, and ensuring that learners are mastering the target material. In fact, if some of the rote portions of traditional face-to-face teaching could be automated by an online course, instructors would have more time for creative assignments that require students to actively interact with the target material. (And, on a related note, students learn different topics at different speeds–why would we assume that all students learn best in fifty-minute chunks five days a week?)

Regardless of negative perceptions of online learning, Scout students have succeeded with AP exams (suggesting they have been well-prepared by their online courses); they have also gone on to successful academic careers at all nine Universities of California, most California State Universities, and dozens of private and out-of-state colleges and universities.


The Future of Scout

Ironically, my hope is that one day there will be no need for Scout, once California’s public schools are able to provide for every student’s needs. Unfortunately, so many of our students come to us precisely because their schools are unable to meet their needs that I doubt Scout will become redundant in my lifetime. With the $4M from the Governor and State Legislature in Assembly Bill 1602 last year, California students are now able to satisfy all their “a-g” requirements with Scout courses. But that $4M in one-time funds covered the creation of those courses; it did not cover teacher salaries. So, while we are thrilled to add 45 new courses to our existing offerings, and to make all our courses available to California public schools at no charge, our current budget does not allow us to provide a Scout instructor to teach every course every semester. I suppose we’ll just have to see what the 17/18 state budget looks like!



Kevin W. Heller is Associate Dean at Scout from University of California and is in the middle of this third term on the UC BOARS committee. He has worked in all four segments of California’s public education system: K-12, Community College, California State University, and University of California. He is Principal and Consultant at 504 Consulting, which provides low- and no-cost support for families of students with special needs.