Try Before You Buy

Drexel University gives prospective distance learners a chance to test free an online course.

August 2, 2017
 

When Melanie Finn considered enrolling in a master’s-level class, she knew that online learning would make sense for her busy lifestyle. The elementary school teacher in East Granby, Conn., liked the idea of taking classes from her laptop in the evenings and on weekends. “As a full-time educator with a mortgage, I knew that going to a traditional school was not an option for me,” she said.

Having never completed an online course, she wasn’t sure what to expect. How would she submit papers? Do research? Communicate with instructors and other students?

She enrolled in a program at Drexel University, her grandfather’s alma mater, that allowed her to participate in a week of free training and demo programs to experience the ins and outs of virtual learning. In March, she took part in the one-week Drexel University Online Test Drive course, which allowed her to interact with professors, grad students and alumni. She completed a virtual scavenger hunt, uploaded a paper and got mock feedback on her work.

The test drive helped her realize she would be comfortable learning in an online setting, and she enrolled in a 10-week online educational policy class at Drexel just a few weeks later.

“It was a really good way for me to see if an online learning program would be something I could manage,” she said.

Finn’s experience is similar to that of many of Drexel’s online students who participate in the test drive and end up enrolling, according to Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, which has an enrollment of 7,300. Since the program launched in December 2014, more than 7,000 students have enrolled in Online Test Drive. (The university's press office said that not all 7,000 completed the course.)

What’s more, data show that prospective students who take part are, on average, twice as likely to enroll in an online program (38.3 percent) than are those who do not (19.7 percent). These students are also most likely to finish the first course and complete their degrees online, Aldridge said.

Created in part to address common anxieties around online education, the program allows students to take part in collaborative, threaded discussions with Drexel faculty and staff members and learn more about individual programs, admission requirements and support services. Because more than 50 percent of the online students have never taken an online course, Aldridge said, the university wanted to ensure they were prepared to navigate in a virtual classroom.

“For many, the idea of completing a degree or certificate entirely online is still a bit intimidating,” she said. “But having a chance to explore technology-enhanced education with others who have the same questions and concerns makes it easier to decide if it’s truly a good fit. And that’s an important factor in determining their long-term success.”

More Demo Programs

Other institutions offer similar programs for prospective students. Two for-profits -- Kaplan University and Capella University -- offer free trial online courses, and Open SUNY provides a demo course that demonstrates many of the online program environments in the State University of New York system. Several institutions, including Arizona State University, provide detailed videos demonstrating online course options.

These types of initiatives offer both students and institutions many benefits, said Jill Buban, senior director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium.

“These test drive or demo programs allow students to be better consumers when selecting an online program,” she said. “For institutions, these programs could have the potential to increase student persistence and retention as students self-select their ability and interest in continuing to take online courses after having tried a course, as opposed to after being enrolled as a student in a course.”

Trying out classes is especially helpful for learners -- especially those over age 30 -- who appreciate the opportunity to talk with students and alumni, said Kimberly David-Chung, assistant vice president for Drexel University Online’s Virtual Student Experience and a developer of the test drive.

“Engaging with other like-minded individuals really helps reduce the anxiety of returning to school, allows them to share their excitement and concerns with the Drexel community, and lets them take a low-risk actionable first,” she said.

The Drexel program has given administrators a steady stream of feedback on the concerns of prospective students. Each participant is prompted to answer short surveys about how they feel about online learning in general and the test drive specifically.

“We always ask the students what they’re nervous about and then have created content based on what students are telling us,” Aldridge said. This led the project team to add or update modules on a variety of topics, including time management, financial aid and career services.

“On the front end, we talk about career-related topics like how to interview for a job or what a 21st-century business card looks like,” she said.

The test drive program is staffed by more than 100 volunteer student and faculty “ambassadors” who answer questions and emails and chat virtually with participants. Drexel recently developed a series of training videos to quickly and easily bring ambassadors up to speed.

“The ambassadors really help decrease the amount of staff time that is devoted to the program,” Aldridge said.

In the future, Aldridge’s team plans to create more robust content for the test drive site, including short animated videos on topics of interest to potential students, such as how to obtain reference letters for the college application process.

For students like Finn, the bottom line is what’s most important: “It made me feel a lot more comfortable when the actual class started,” she said.

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