Perhaps you've done the research about accreditation, finances, and curriculum, but you still aren't sure what to expect in the day-to-day life of an online course. How can you find out more about the experience of actually taking an academic course online?
One of the most frequently asked questions by prospective online students is: How does an online class work? Online colleges and universities are providing more information to prospective students these days. Some offer complete versions of their courses as a preview, others offer individual course modules or narrated presentations for demonstration purposes. These course demos and virtual tours are available at no cost and allow you to experience the format on your own before enrolling.
Test Drive Checklist
Before trying a course demo, let's review some of the basics and create a checklist of items to look for during your test drive. Use this checklist to locate these items in each of the online course demos as you experience them in “try-out” mode. Focus on the actions you will have to take within the course site to interact with the content, the instructor, and your classmates.
____ Communication Tools: How will your instructor contact you? How will you contact your instructor and other students in the class? Are there ways to meet in real-time with synchronous technologies? Several of the course demos allow you to enter a discussion board or text chat.
____ Learning Management System: You'll access your online courses through a student portal site and often a Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS organizes all of the information you'll need for each course. There are many LMS options with similar features, but different interfaces on screen. Some of the more commonly used systems include Blackboard, eCollege, Moodle, and Desire2Learn.
____ Navigation Menus: Explore all of the pages, links, and tabs in each course you test. Again, different systems will be structured differently, but online courses will contain a general set of components. Locate all of the materials that have been posted and practice moving around within the demo courses.
____ Uploading and Downloading: In an online course you will be required to both upload documents (to submit class assignments) and download documents (for review, reading, and reference). Find these components in a demo course. Is there a drop box for assignment submission? What types of files will you have to download (e.g., Word, PDF, PowerPoint)?
____ Structure and Sequence: Can you access all of the course materials at once or will the course be timed so that one module is released at a time? Online courses are often organized into units that take place over one week. Look for indicators of each school's approach to organizing content. Is a course calendar provided? Are units numbered or labeled by the week?
____ Multimedia Formats: How many different methods are used to present the course materials? Are you required to download any software in order to view these materials? Look for different types of documents, audio and video recordings, slide shows, games and simulations.
____ Technology Required: You'll need the basics to get started with online learning and the willingness to continue learning about technology along the way. What are the different types of technologies used in the course demos? Are any of these new to you? Consider taking a technology skills self-assessment before exploring a course demo.
Online course demos offer a look at all of the different components you will encounter in a live course. Look for examples of these typical parts of an online course:
____ Lectures and presentations,
____ Discussion boards,
____ Assignment instructions,
____ Quizzes, and
____ Grading rubrics.
What else do you want to know about the online learning environment before you enroll? Add your questions to the list and then explore a few demos.
Ready to try one (or two) out?
As you take a closer look at the course examples provided by these institutions, you'll see a lot of similarities and differences. Compare more than one school's demo course to get a better understanding about how similar information can be presented differently on screen. The course demos listed below are just a few examples of the many you can find online. Use these to get a feel for the online learning environments and include this work as part of your overall research about online programs.
- Ashford University: View a series of narrated tutorials, then log in to access 5 demo courses ranging from Management Communications to Principles of Health Care Administration.
- Columbia College: Explore the Student Practice Course beginning with the Announcements. This page lists all of the components of the online courses at this institution. You can click through the pages and also see examples of student tech support and a menu where students can set preferences for the course site.
- Kaplan University: The Academic Strategies course is just one of 11 courses Kaplan has made available with an open license. These courses are not presented in the Kaplan University LMS, but do provide a look at the type of content you'll find in an online course, the course syllabus, course level learning objectives, and unit activities.
- Liberty University: This Christian faith-based university's course demonstration takes place within the university's Blackboard LMS. Login and choose LU Online 101 from the Course List to access the course site.
- Minnesota State Colleges and Universities: Two mini-courses are available in Desire2Learn learning management system: Chocolate (it really is about chocolate!) and How do I Learn? The username and password to enter the demo are both: Chocolate, which is case sensitive. Look for and take the sample online quiz.
- Oregon State University: This eCampus Course Demo offers 5 demonstration modules that walk you through an online classroom with sample assignments and multimedia activities from three courses.
- Park University Use the login information provided to view an interactive demo course in the eCollege LMS. You can add a comment/reply to the online discussion boards to experience this kind of communication tool. Take the quizzes and view the lecture feature each week. This login also allows you to access a writing lab and an orientation to online learning module.
Some schools provide these course and module demos that allow you to click through the sample pages on your own, with different levels of interactivity and engagement allowed. Others provide a narrated virtual tour of their courses using flash animation and video. Here are a few online tours you might be interested in viewing for more information about the online class environment and student support resources:
- American Intercontinental University
- Capella University
- DeVry University
- Excelsior College
- Walden University
The school or schools you are interested in may not have a demo course or virtual tour available. If you don't find one in your search, ask! And use the demos listed in this post as a way to get a feel for online environments in general. These demonstration courses and virtual tours can be extremely helpful and give you a better idea of what to expect as an online student. Take notes as you go through these sites – you'll find answers to questions you have now and new questions will emerge. Contact admissions advisors for more information and clarification about the online course experience at the schools you are considering.
Take advantage of the opportunity to explore the online learning environment as part of your overall effort to research the schools and programs that best meet your needs. Once you are enrolled you can expect to find some sort of orientation to the school's specific technologies, expectations, and policies. In the meantime, you can learn a lot and get a few of your questions answered by exploring the examples already available online.