Arlington partners with Amazon for cloud-based curriculum


In September of this year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a partnership with Amazon involving a new curriculum of online classes for select universities, community colleges and K-12 schools. This cloud-based service, called Amazon Web Services (AWS) Educate, includes material in the subjects of artificial intelligence, gaming and medical advancements. It will be used primarily for either a system of dual-enrolled classes or as an additional resource for existing science and math classes. Arlington Public Schools (APS) is one county that is partnering with AWS Educate to integrate a cloud-based program to supplement what is currently available in schools.

AWS Educate’s classes are online, meaning there will be significant differences in the way the classes function compared to traditional classes. Online courses currently being used at the school include Advanced Placement (AP) Government, AP Chinese and Virtual Economics and Personal Finance. Compared to traditional courses, online classes tend to allow more schedule freedom for the student, though at varying levels. Virtual Economics, for instance, allows students to work from home. Mr. Steven Brown, the Virtual Economics teacher, says this flexibility serves different purposes for different students.

“There have been students who wanted to get ahead and take an art or theater class senior year, so they wanted to take eight classes their junior year,” Mr. Brown said. “There are students who work part-time jobs, so for them, being able to start work earlier at two o’clock rather than four o’clock meant that they got back home at an earlier time. It really fit what they were able to do.”

Given that these online classes do not involve direct communication with teachers, Mr. Brown says certain aspects of the course have become more detached. Since personal finance is a skill that is easy to apply to life, Mr. Brown says he misses opportunities to tell personal stories when his classes are online and he does not get to interact with students as much as he had been used to.

“There’s not that one-to-one connection where you see the students and they see you,” Mr. Brown said. “At the beginning of the year, I have to tell them, if you walk by me in the hall and you wave, you’ll look familiar but [I won’t know your name].”

Just like Mr. Brown’s class, AWS Educate’s classes are self-paced, so some students will already be comfortable with this style of learning.

“For different people, I know it’s been challenging, but I think if you’re a diligent student, then the self-paced atmosphere is good,” junior Sophia Edwards, a student in the Virtual Economics class, said. “It definitely can be difficult to keep up with your work and to get help, but  you can if you need to.” 

Students in online classes say they are flexible and easy to navigate but can still have issues.

“It’s not hard to talk to the teacher [of my AP Chinese class], but it definitely takes time for the teacher to get back to you, so lack of communication is an issue,” senior Hardy Yao said. 

Yao takes AP Chinese, a course that is not offered in-person at the school. As a native speaker of Chinese, Yao says the lack of communication is not a problem for him but it might be for someone less comfortable with the content. 

Along with being online, the program is expected to be partially used to give students more access to dual-enrollment classes, though it is not clear yet which online classes will be dual-enrollment as a course list is yet to be finalized. For a student to enroll in dual-enrollment classes, they become a student at both Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and Washington-Liberty, thereby earning college credit in a high school atmosphere. Compared to other college level courses, English 12 Dual Enrolled teacher Mr. Jacob Lloyd says dual enrollment classes are more similar to a college experience.

“Students don’t have to worry about an AP test or an International Baccalaureate (IB) assessment at the end, and it’s so much more about the content that they produce as opposed to meeting a standard,” Mr. Lloyd said. “AP and IB have national or international standards. But, in college, every college puts their weight behind their instructors and the curriculum that they have developed. What that means is that this kind of class allows you to push yourself at college level rigor but in a way that’s more about you.”

As for how this change will impact college applications, while there is no difference between an online and in-person class on a transcript, dual enrollment credits are used differently depending on the college.

“Dual enrollment is definitely becoming more recognized as just as rigorous as AP or IB, which it should be because it’s actually college level curriculum,” Ms. Elysse Catino, the school’s college and career counselor, said. “But I typically lump all those classes together in terms of if colleges are accepting them for credit, because it really just depends on the college. In Virginia, NOVA credits are accepted more often because NOVA is more recognized, but often schools outside of Virginia or more prestigious schools aren’t taking AP, IB or dual-enrollment classes as credit.”

According to Ms. Catherine Ashby, the Interim Assistant Superintendent for School and Community Relations, integrating AWS Educate classes would likely have implications for the county’s budget; its implementation would create a need to train current teachers or additional teachers for new classes. 

“I don’t know about a fully online type of setting, but I do think that online offerings should be a positive thing for students,” Mr. Brown said. “It just takes time to build the program. It’s not gonna be perfect the first time around.”