Drexel University is among several schools that offer students a free “test-drive” course before taking a full online class (Goodman 2017). This is a shortened version of a regular online course meant to allow students to determine whether online learning is right for them. Drexel says students who take the course are twice as likely to enter an online program than those who do not. The test-drive also prepares students for online education in a no-pressure environment, helping to reduce many of the initial problems that students encounter when they first take an online course. Plus, the test-drive can flag students for whom online learning just does not work, thus preventing failures later.
Drexel is applying the “freemium” model that has become standard in the online software industry. Systems such as Evernote provide a free version with limited features to try out. Users who like it normally reach a point when they want more features and are willing to pay for the premium version. Higher education is unique in expecting customers to plunk down an enormous amount of money for their product without any test-drive at all, and any institution willing to offer a test-drive will have an enormous marketing advantage over others.
Institutions looking to implement a test-drive program have a range of options at their disposal. Capella offers a complete course. My guess is that this is not instructor led due to the cost of paying for an instructor and so not a genuine online learning experience, but its length can test a student's resolve for sticking with an online course over the long haul better than a one-week module. Kaplan allows students to take a live online course without cost and leave after three weeks if they are not satisfied, which is probably a better representation of the online experience for participants. In some sense, this is just a clever marketing gimmick because students normally get a full tuition remission when pulling out at the beginning of a course anyway. But the packaging as a no-obligation test-drive sells that opportunity to potential students.
Drexel's program offers participants one module of an online course, including content, assessment, and discussion. The experience is interactive, so it closely represents a real course. To make it work financially for the institution, more than 100 student and faculty volunteer “ambassadors” handle the interaction with participants. In this way, Drexel provides an enticing experience for participants without a huge instructional cost, a powerful formula for drawing students into online education and preparing them for their classes.
It is well worthwhile for an institution to develop a test-drive course for its own online course program, especially given the spectrum of options and costs. But a faculty member can take the initiative with his or her own test-drive program. At the very least, a faculty member can post some of the course content in a public location for prospective students to view. I've mentioned previously in this publication how faculty members mistakenly put up their CVs on their faculty websites. Students are not interested in what the faculty member published or where the faculty member went to school but rather what the classroom experience will be like. Faculty members would do better by providing an introductory video about their classes, explaining what they are about and what students will be doing.
A faculty member can also put an entire online module on a website outside the school's learning management system to give students a sense of what online content looks like. If the faculty member's school-designated website does not support or allow online course content, several free systems for hosting web content are available, including Google Sites, Weebly, and Zoho. A faculty member teaching a flipped course can essentially kill two birds with one stone by posting the online content on a public site rather than within the closed learning management system. That content would both serve current students and allow potential students to learn what the course looks like and decide whether it is right for them, a kind of partial test-drive.
The next step up would be for a department to host a section of an online course on a public website for potential students to test-drive. This could be a fully functioning module, including content, discussions, and assessment, to give students the real experience of online education. Like Drexel, the interactivity could be provided by volunteer faculty, graduate students, or undergraduates. Graduate students, in particular, might welcome the opportunity to gain real-world experience of online teaching before going into the job market.
If the school's learning management system does not have an option for offering public modules, faculty members or departments can avail themselves of a variety of free learning management systems. Coursera
) is the best-known MOOC system providing free hosting for complete online courses. A faculty member can easily build a module in this system that closely matches the work in his or her own course—complete with content, assessment, and discussions. Schoology
) is another excellent system that provides all the trappings of an online course, including lessons, assessments, and discussions. Other systems to look at include ClassFlow
(https://www.chalkup.co), and Classmill
Whether the intent is to draw in more online students or just better prepare students for online education, a test-drive experience will significantly improve an online course program.
Goodman, Jennifer. 2017. “Try Before You Buy.” Inside Higher Ed, August 2, 2017. Accessed September 10, 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/08/02/drexels-test-drive-allows-students-try-out-online-learning