Acellus Academy offers online enrollment for homeschoolers for grade level courses in math, science, social studies, and language arts with a few electives available for the elementary and middle school levels. High school level offers a much broader selection of options and electives with courses for both remedial and AP levels. There are plenty of tech and career prep electives but foreign language courses are very limited.
Courses align with national standards, including the Common Core State Standards for math and language arts.
All courses are presented by experienced teachers in pre-recorded lessons that students access online. This means students can access courses any time they wish rather than at set times. They can also begin courses at any time of the year. Enrollment fees can be paid by the month or the year.
Lessons are presented by teachers in brief segments then students answer questions or solve problems based on lesson material. Questions are scored immediately. Unit exams, a mid-term exam, and final exam and provided within each course to ensure that students master the material before moving forward.
Students will usually complete a number of segments each session. Most video segments are shorter than ten minutes. Questions vary in the amount of time required. Some might be as brief as five multiple choice questions while others (usually at higher grade levels) might include a lengthy reading passage with questions. Segments tend to be longer as students move up through grade levels.
Acellus incorporates complex algorithms to adapt material for students. I could not see “behind the scenes” to identify when or how this might be happening, so my explanation of the adaptations are based on information from Acellus. They claim to have done a great deal of research to create and continually improve the program.
For example, because so many students begin classes with critical gaps in their background knowledge, Acellus occasionally presents what they call “swiss cheese problems” that identify deficiencies so that the system can adapt to fill gaps.
Acellus also uses context-sensitive adaptation. If a student misses a math problem, the system looks at the type of error and addresses that particular type of error rather than just the solution to the problem.
Just looking at the lists of courses, you can tell that Acellus was also designed to help struggling students. There are courses obviously designated for such purposes, but Acellus also has three tracks for most courses: normal, accelerated, and reduced levels of difficulty. Students are shifted with a prompt from the system, but only after parent or teacher approval of the change. Teachers or parents can also change the grade level of a course if need be, but the student starts over again with that course.
Pre-tests at the beginning of most courses help establish prior student knowledge. However, pre-tests sometimes seemed to be based upon very specific material that is referenced but that is not provided within the pre-tests. Also, pre-tests for high school courses were sometimes drawn from one specific topic. For example, Biology (Ecology) pre-test questions were almost all about genetics, and the pre-test for the U.S. History course for high school was loaded with questions almost exclusively about the Civil War. Pre-tests do not affect student scores, but some of them seemed odd as assessments of prior knowledge for broad subject areas. Perhaps there’s something else going on behind the scenes with these tests, but they were often disconcerting.
Just as in classrooms, some Acellus teachers are more effective or more appealing than others. Many of the teachers in the primary grades seem very upbeat and encouraging, even over the top sometimes in their attempts to engage students. However the first grade math teacher seems deadpan some of the time, and a boy teaches some of the first grade science and social studies segments, speaking very slowly. Maybe young students will relate to the boy, but the sessions seem to move slowly. On the other hand, the fourth grade science teacher is very lively and engaging even while she’s teaching something as mundane as the classification system, and the Algebra 1 teacher is also outstanding.
Teachers recap the main concepts at the end of each lesson. This is an excellent feature that many teachers would do well to imitate.
Students need to check under “Special Lessons” on their dashboard for additional lesson material. These might be visual aids, spelling lists, or other resources for younger students. At upper levels, they might be notes of the lecture content for a science course, discussion questions, essay assignments, or other visual aids or assignments. These are designed by each teacher so they vary a great deal from course to course. Parents or teachers can also access these from their own screen, and they might want to occasionally print them out.
All reading material is presented online, even for high school courses, so students do not need to obtain additional books.
Lessons and questions in the early grades include lots of repetition. This might be great for some students but excessive for others. For example, students might be asked to spell the same word five times in an exercise with only twenty or so words. The student is given the exact same image and sample sentence each time for that word. I don’t see that there’s any way to skip ahead when a lesson is redundant.
One issue that cropped up from time to time was that questions after a lesson segment sometimes addressed topics not covered until a later segment.
The teacher/parent interface is easy to use. Student work is automatically graded. Cumulative progress is available in the Acellus Gradebook. Time worked is also logged by the system. Reports and transcripts can be accessed and printed from the teacher/parent interface.
As far as the treatment of religion, Acellus is a secular program, and it can be used through charter schools. They say that they try to be sensitive to religious topics since some religious schools use their curriculum. However, one of the thorniest issues is evolution, and the treatment of that topic in high school biology strongly presents an evolutionary perspective. In addition, I found the high school level U.S. History course problematic with a not so subtle bias against religion. I expect that some other Acellus courses will mirror many such issues that crop up in government-funded school classrooms for those with strongly held religious beliefs.
For my review, I set up three students: a first grader, a fourth grader, and a ninth grader. Following are some particular observations regarding courses for each of those grade levels.
Teachers at first grade level spend a bit of time trying to motivate students with encouragement as well as discussions about why students need skills such as math and reading.
Reading instruction in first grade has a strong phonics base, but it also teaches basic sight words as well as reading skills such as comprehension and identifying the main character, the setting, or the conflict. They seem to be building a solid foundation for reading skills.
Teachers sometimes speak to students as if they are in a classroom. (Homeschoolers weren’t the original target market for Acellus, so this is understandable.)
Social studies taught in many schools seems to cover many things that most children will already understand—what do various community helpers do, what is the difference between past and future, etc. Acellus is no different. Students learn about helping others at school and in the family, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, the positions of things in relation to one another, and reading the calendar. In addition, the class segments include biographies, but these seem to be an unexpected selection of historical figures who are not well -known.
In social studies distinctions made between home and school crop up more often than in other courses, and some of these might be confusing to homeschoolers. Tighter editing is needed on some other social studies questions. For example, one question asks which picture shows something you do at home. It then shows a picture of children collecting chicken eggs (perhaps in a barn or coop), and the other picture shows children standing by school desks reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They can’t be assuming that all children have chickens living at “home,” and the alternative is clearly a traditional classroom, but then homeschoolers might recite the Pledge of Allegiance at home. In another question, it asks, “Which picture shows a family reading?” One picture shows two children. The other shows a dad and a little boy in a position that could be for reading, but there’s nothing to read visible in the picture. The latter is the only answer that might make sense, but it requires children to infer that reading is happening. (Maybe that is purposeful, but it could be confusing to children.)
Science lessons offer a broad introduction to many topics with lots of illustrations. Math builds a solid foundation in beginning math concepts and arithmetic, often using hands-on demonstrations and visual representations.
Fourth grade reviews phonics in detail but with an emphasis on using phonics knowledge for spelling. Drill exercises first present words with an image and a spoken sample sentence. The word to be spelled is shown above the image. Then the same image repeats immediately without the word. So students have a prompt to help them spell it correctly the first time, but not the second. This is followed by an exercise that requires spelling without prompts. I like this system of presentation, but many easy words are repeated too many times. (With an adaptive system, I would expect it to drop words for which the student has demonstrated mastery a few times.)
I made a similar observation regarding math. Fourth grade starts with review of place value and simple addition and subtraction. Even after taking a pre-test and missing only one problem, my sample student was given a number of lesson segments reviewing basic math from first grade level. Review of multiplication facts would be more appropriate at this point.
The Algebra 1 course I selected is great, largely due to the outstanding teacher. He explains and demonstrates concepts thoroughly, helping students think through each process. These segments were enjoyable to watch, something that can rarely be said about an algebra class.
The Biology course is well presented, but note potential concerns about evolution that I mentioned above. Still the Next Generation Science Standards pretty much guarantee that this will be the standard treatment in courses offered by most schools.
I selected U.S. History I for my ninth grade student. I encountered a number of issues with this course , many stemming from a determinedly secular presentation that seems ill-informed regarding religious history. For example, the teacher says that people started questioning and challenging the Catholic Church during the Reformation for the first time. This ignores a long history of such challenges tracing back to the Council of Jerusalem. Other issues have to do with historical accuracy. He says that the Crusades were started as a result of the start of trade, but he never mentions the Muslim conquests that were a more important issue. He frequently repeats the historical error that in the 1400s most people believed the earth was flat; there are even questions requiring students to affirm this. Some issues have to do with his imposition of modern-day attitudes that would have been rejected in the actual historical situations. For example, he attributes Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs solely to a thirst for conquest with no mention of the human sacrifices and other practices of the Aztec culture. Aztecs are implied to be good since they were native to the country. Overall, he presents the very modern view that aboriginal cultures should have been left undisturbed. This is one course I would skip.
Acellus Academy courses have done a nice job coupling video lessons presented by excellent teachers with online student responses to ensure learning. Courses keep students engaged because teaching segments are short and questions follow immediately. Students have to pay attention to answer the questions.
Students can work through courses independently, something many parents will appreciate.
Courses are generally of high quality in spite of some minor shortcomings I’ve noted and the one course I wouldn’t recommend. (Note that at high school level it’s easy to simply select a different course.) While I cannot speak from experience about using these courses with students who need remedial work, Acellus has a successful track record with such students.
Most surprising is the cost. A student can take up to six courses for only $30 a month or $299 a year. Additional oversight and interaction with a teacher is available but it more than doubles the cost.
Those looking for secular course material that aligns with national standards should find Acellus an option well worth considering.