Test Driving an Online Program: How to Try Before You Apply

Not sure if online learning is right for you? Many schools give you the chance to try a course or program before you commit. Learn what that entails, the test-drive options you have, and how to make the most of each experience.

You may feel hesitant to enroll in an online degree program. Maybe you’re too uncertain about what to expect, or you’re just not convinced it’s as good as learning in-person. The good news is, advancements in remote learning technologies have fueled both the quality and quantity of online learning programs over the last decade. Colleges and universities today can offer you the same high-quality education online as they do on campus. You’ll earn the same valuable credentials that can help you advance your career and meet your professional goals.

Still, you may wonder if online learning is right for you, even if it’s become a primary mode of education. Perhaps you’re worried that the flexibility of online learning brings a more serious need for self-discipline and time management that might not be your thing. Maybe you aren’t sure if you’d be able to navigate an online learning management system, thinking it might hinder your progress. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, that’s ok, because you can give online learning a test drive. This guide shows hesitant online learners how to test out an online program or course before they apply. Learn the different test drive options, what to ask yourself as you’re testing, and, most importantly, how to make a decision in the end.

Types of Online Learning Test Drives

Online courses and programs vary across institutions. However, some use many of the same multimedia techniques to deliver material to their students. When looking to test drive an online course, keep a special eye out for these five online learning modes:

Material Previews

Material previews offer you informative and basic online learning test drives. Much of the information you will receive will include screenshot samples of what a school’s online lessons look like. Although these are not interactive drives, you’ll usually get a good explanation of the school’s online delivery methods and unique features.

Delivery Method

Often paired with informative PDFs that are prepared for all prospective online learners, materials previews will typically include slideshows, screenshots, or video clips that show what you will see on-screen as an online student. You’ll sometimes find material previews that are a kind of click-through site, with buttons and audio narration explaining  the features on the screen.

What’s Included?

In material previews, you may see sample clips of a professor delivering a lesson using their preferred technology such as Microsoft PowerPoint or an online whiteboard. Schools may also show you video clips of teachers at a podium giving a lecture, especially if that’s one of the primary ways they teach course content.

Result

What you’ll get out of this type of test drive is a general sense of how a school delivers their online instructional content. You will understand the basic technologies that professors use with remote students and what that looks like from the student’s perspective remotely. While these aren’t overly detailed previews compared to others, you will at least know the general format of online classes at a particular school and what to expect in terms of technology or required learning tools.

Examples

The materials that school’s use in these test drives may vary, but these examples can help familiarize you with what you can expect in general.

  1. Eastern Kentucky University Online Test Drive: EKU features a single screen sample of its Blackboard system. You can click on buttons around the sample page and hear audio explanations of each feature.
  2. Quinnipiac University: Quinnipiac features a click-through style video presentation that allows you to use highlighted buttons for detailed explanations of each major feature on its Blackboard site.

Interactive Previews

In these test drives, you have the chance to click-through the school’s actual online learning system such as Blackboard or Canvas. You will be able to view how it’s laid out and where all the course materials are located.

Delivery Method

You will log in to the latest version of the school’s learning system as if you were a student and complete all or part of a learning module for an actual course. While giving you a look at what real online classes look like in its system, there are also explanations for each feature as you move through each page.

What’s Included?

In interactive previews, you’ll get the chance to complete small activities that you might find in an actual course, see where you’ll engage with lectures and course content, and know how to submit discussion posts or homework assignments. You’ll also be able to check out all of the profile features and dashboard tools, including the assignments calendar, school announcements page, to-do lists, and a section that keeps all of your course content organized.

Result

Unlike material previews, the interactive preview really helps you to experience what the learning management systems are like. Since the preview lets you log in as if you were an enrolled student taking a class, you won’t have to wonder whether or not the delivery methods, layout, and ease of use will be different than what you sample. Being able to complete actual activities inside interactive previews also lets you know what is expected in terms of online interaction versus the types of work and reading you’ll need to do offline.

Examples

The number of interactive features will vary but these two should give you a good sense of this the virtual preview:

  1. Central Michigan University Sample: Central Michigan allows you to log in to its Blackboard system and engage with sample materials, including sample assignments, quizzes, and discussion board.
  2. Indiana University Online Course Test Drive: In this one, you log in to Canvas and sample partial modules from several actual classes. You also get to complete online course activities.

Short-Term Participation

Short-term participation test drives allow students to get a good feel for an online class without receiving a grade or course credit. This option is, however, based on the real life experience that students have with a particular program.

Delivery Method

In these test drive scenarios, you will enroll in an abbreviated format of an online class using the school’s chosen learning system. You will likely have a scheduled start and end date for this test drive and follow the same procedures as a regularly enrolled student. In some cases, you will be able to interact with others who are sampling the course at the same time.

What’s Included?

Sometimes referred to as mini-courses, you will be able to spend approximately one week completing course assignments, interacting with other students and faculty using discussion boards, and submitting sample assignments. Since you’ll be using the online learning system at that particular school, you’ll get a good feel of what it’s like to actually take a class there.

Result

For many remote learners, short-term participation test drives offer the next best thing to full-time participation. Even though you won’t be receiving grades or credit for your work, these are low commitment and highly informative experiences that you shouldn’t pass up if you are wondering about the experience of online learners.

Examples

The expectations and requirements for short-term participation test drives will be different for each college and university. These examples align with the most common formats available today:

  1. Drexel University Online Test Drive: With this test drive, you’ll be able to submit a sample assignment, participate in discussions with others trying out the class, and take advantage of online resources that are traditionally available to Drexel students.
  2. Capella University Free Trial Course Capella offers two types of trials that match their course delivery methods. Here you can explore both self-paced and cohort-learning options to see which format works best for you.

Try Before You Buy

This option is where you enroll in the program and take real classes for real credit, should you meet all the requirements. You’ll engage fully in the lectures, chats, quizzes, and other activities like any regularly enrolled student. At the end of a designated trial period, you can quit the course at no cost. Alternatively, you may continue on with the classes, provided you’ve submitted all the paperwork and are meeting the necessary academic standards. At that time, you’ll pay for the class.

Delivery Method

These try-before-you-buy test drives look and function exactly like the regular course offerings at a college or university because these are, in fact, the real classes. They are delivered through the school’s designated learning system, with all the learning features, instruction, and guidance that regularly enrolled students receive.

What’s Included?

These full classes feature everything that a college’s online learning program has to offer. Depending on the learning format, you will participate in weekly discussions, keep up with regular assignments and readings, contribute to group projects and online discussions, and submit assignments as requested.

Result

The try-before-you-buy test drive is useful for multiple reasons. Firstly, you get a real taste of what it is like to take a class through a particular school. Secondly, the time you spend on the test drive can be counted as official work toward earning course credit, should you choose to keep going. In other words, there is no wasted time with this test drive if you choose to finish the class.

Examples

Colleges and universities may have different formats or requirements for their try-before-you-buy options. While this type of test drive is not available through every online program, these examples will give you a strong idea of how they work:

  1. Purdue University Global Campus: Purdue features a free three-week introductory program for online undergraduate students. Learners can take a full load of classes during this trial period.
  2. Fitchburg State University: FSU’s online learning test drive allows you to take up to 12 graduate credits within one calendar year before you even apply for admission to a degree program. This is sometimes referred to as stacking credits.

No Cost MOOCs

If you’re just not sure what school you may want to go to or what program you may want to attend, you may be able to find some value in trying out massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as your introduction to online learning. They can definitely help you get a feel for remote studies, but they may not give you the same experience as a test drive through a school you actually want to attend.

MOOCs are a good place to start if you’re interested in getting a general sense of distance learning and how you manage an online learning system. MOOCs often come through education companies that have a collaborative agreement with colleges and universities. Some classes may allow you to earn transferable credits, which are commonly referred to as “credit-eligible” courses. In these cases, students who enroll in a class to earn credit are charged a tuition fee.

Delivery Method

The delivery method for MOOCs will vary between schools and providers. In many cases, you’ll use common online learning management systems like a Canvas or Blackboard. Depending on the institution, these classes can be either in a self-paced or cohort learning format.

What’s Included?

Course offerings will vary among MOOCs providers, as well. You may find that some programs offer a wide variety of courses that are applicable to dozens of academic majors. There are others out there that will limit course offerings through MOOCs to specialized areas or one particular field.

Result

MOOCs are low commitment and free, and a good fit for students, working professionals, parents, and just about anybody else with an internet connection who wants to educate themselves on a topic. Fortunately for prospective or degree-minded students, the way that they are set up closely aligns with the online class structures that many colleges and universities happen to use. In general, these programs will give you a good sense of whether or not online learning works for your particular educational needs.

Examples

Here are a few examples of quality MOOCs:

  1. EdX Free Online Courses: EdX features more than 250 classes online, across dozens of academic majors. Through their site, you can take free online classes through top institutions such as Harvard University, Boston University, University of California Berkeley, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  2. Coursera: From Amazon and the American Museum of Natural History to Berklee College of Music and Carnegie Mellon University, Coursera collaborates with schools, nonprofits, and companies to deliver free online classes. Coursera also offers for-credit classes and online degree programs that require tuition payments.

Questions to Ask Yourself While You’re Driving

After you settle on one or more methods to test drive some online classes, you’re ready to get a better idea of what it’s like to be an online student. Consider taking note of your thoughts and feelings as you test out a class. You should write them down so you create a good record of your reactions throughout the process. You’ll be able to reflect on them and take a deeper dive into your thoughts on your experience. Consider asking yourself these questions.

Can I learn this way? Do I retain and process the information in this format?

This may be among the most important questions you can ask yourself. if you find this method of learning uncomfortable or feel like it greatly reduces your level of information retention, that is a concern to pay attention to as you continue your test drive. Bear in mind that there is somewhat of a learning curve with distance learning and you may need to spend a little more time testing out a class before you get used to it.

Do I feel engaged while in an online lecture or chat group?

Do I have the access I want and need to professors, peers, and other necessary faculty and admin?

Do I enjoy the live content, the self-paced content, or a mixture of both?

Are the objectives and outcomes clear?

Do my current technological resources (laptop, internet connection, etc.) work with this program?

How much time does it take me to get through a module or sample assignment?

What has my learning environment been like? Am I in a physical space that is conducive to learning?

Questions to Ask Others While You’re Driving

Some of your most valuable sources of information are professors, students, and advisors. If possible, contact these individuals with any questions either during or after your test drive experience. It may be a good choice to start with professors and then, should you want to talk to students as well, ask them for recommendations and students’ contact information. Professors or advisers may want to ask for the student’s permission before they send you their contact information.

What resources does the school have to help me succeed?

Professors, students, and advisers can point out those online learning resources that will help you as a remote student. Many online programs take pride in the types of services they offer and usually offer detailed explanations of these features on its online learning homepage or resources page.

Where can I find technical support during regular hours? After hours?

Does the online program offer an orientation session?

What recourse do I have should I need to drop or delay classes?

How much online interaction will I have with other students and/or professors?

How much time will I spend each week on assignments?

Insight from Online Learning Experts

Jessica Stasi
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Jessica Stasi is the owner of the women-led STEM enrichment program, Snapology of Manhattan. She is the Co-Chair of the Special Olympics New York leadership council and participants habitually in community events for persons with intellectual and physical disabilities.

As a previous online student who’s earned their master’s degree remotely, what’s one of the things you recommend a prospective online student do or try out before applying/enrolling to know if a remote program would be a good fit for them?

Online learning takes a huge level of self-sufficiency and accountability. Although there is often a live lecture and/or interaction with the professor or peers, it is much easier to get distracted and much more difficult to retain the information if you aren’t diligent in staying focused. To better understand whether an online institution for a lengthy degree is appropriate, I suggest taking a shorter skills course online to test your ability to limit outside distraction, prudence in remaining focused, and the honesty to turn in original work. The preliminary online course can be as simple as a Microsoft certification or as complex as a multi month course from an esteemed university that has an online division e.g. Harvard, Princeton, or Berkeley online.

What is an issue, challenge, or problem that you encountered as an online learner that you wish you were better prepared to handle? How can our readers avoid it or prepare themselves?

What’s a common mistake that students make before pursuing an online program or a commonly held misconception?

As far as investigating online learning, what’s some critical things to keep an eye out for?

Dr. Alan Chu
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Dr. Alan Chu is an Assistant Professor and the Chair of the Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology Master’s Program at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in sport and performance psychology, physiological psychology, and research methods. Additionally, he is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) working with athletes and coaches on psychological skills training for peak performance. 

As a teacher of online courses, what’s one of the things you recommend a prospective online student do or try out before applying/enrolling in online classes?

The best thing a student can do before enrolling in a specific online course, if possible, is to check with a friend who has taken that course. Given that different courses are structured differently and require somewhat different skill sets, some focus more on reading and testing and some on discussion and applications, knowing the structure of the course would be very beneficial. If asking a friend is not possible, I recommend that the student communicate with the instructor or their academic advisor to understand the requirements and expectations of online learning in that department/school.

While teaching online classes, what issues have you seen with remote students who weren’t prepared for distance learning? What advice or support did you give them in those moments?

What online or in-person resources would you recommend for students if they’re trying to figure out if distance learning would work for their learning style and lifestyle?

Resources

The Guardian: Six of the Best Apps for e-Learners

Here’s a vetted list of reliable apps for today’s busy online learner.

Cappex Scholarships

This site provides you with easy ways to search for scholarship opportunities to help fund your education.

Chegg

Chegg offers a wide variety of student resources including information on book rentals, internships, tutoring, and more. The company also offers a subscription program for writing assistance and its online plagiarism checker.

The Link

Offered by Columbia Southern University, the school provides an academic assistance blog featuring tips and resources for online and on-campus learners.

Minnesota State CAREERwise

The school offers its “What Makes a Successful Online Learner?” article, with recommendations on reading, writing, and tech skills for distance degree-seekers.

Eight Strategies for Getting the Most Out of an Online Class

Northeastern University offers this list of practical suggestions and guidance for new online learners.

ION Professional e-Learning Programs

Provided by the University of Illinois Springfield, this article provides some good general advice for new distance students.