When Lisa Dowdell heard about the for-profit, online Capella University through her daughter, a student, she was excited about the prospect of earning a bachelor’s degree on her own schedule.
But Dowdell, a web application developer living in the Chicago suburbs, wasn’t sure whether the online format was suitable for her. Fortunately for Dowdell, Capella offers a free weeklong sample course to give students a taste of what to expect.
“I said, ‘OK, let me just take this so I could see what I’m in for,’” says the 51-year-old information technology student. Taking the sample course, she says, would also tell her whether she would be able to successfully manage her time.
Dowdell completed assignments and engaged virtually with classmates and faculty, she says. Ultimately, she decided online learning worked for her.
For prospective online students, sampling an online degree program is key to determine whether the format is right for them and choose a program based on structure and flexibility, many experts say. These opportunities are often available on a program’s website or by contacting an admissions or enrollment counselor.
“I think sometimes, perceptions of students don’t necessarily align with the actual reality of what a program is,” says Vickie Cook, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois—Springfield.
Online learning requires self-motivation and the ability to communicate with peers and instructors from a distance, experts say. And each program is created differently.
Here are six ways prospective online students might sample online degree programs, depending on what’s available at different schools.
1. Find course demos or trials: While Capella has a weeklong mini-course format, Oregon State University Ecampus and Marist College – along with many other online programs – offer online course demos on their websites.
For OSU, students can access the online classroom, and each lesson focuses on a different aspect of online learning or answers a key question that prospective students often have, says Shannon Riggs, OSU Ecampus’ director of course development and training. They can also view sample online lectures.
Other institutions, like Northeastern University, publish videos that walk through online courses and their features.
2. Take orientation courses: For some programs, students can first enroll in an online class that familiarizes them with what online learning entails, Cook says. They might complete assignments to gauge their readiness and communicate with other students on discussion boards.
Pennsylvania State University—World Campus hosts a nine-week course titled “Transitions” primarily for prospective online students to experience online education, says Pat Shope, the online school’s prior learning assessment coordinator.
“It, as close as we can, acts and looks and feels like a Penn State course,” she says. Students write essays, interview with career counselors and explore available resources.
3. Audit an actual online course: Prospective students can, in some cases, attend live portions of an online course, where actual students communicate in real time through videoconferencing, before they enroll – though this isn’t as common as in the past, Cook says.
Still, it’s a popular option at the University of North Carolina—Chapel HIll Kenan-Flagler Business School online MBA program, says Douglas Shackelford, the school’s dean.
“The likelihood of their being enthused and excited and wanting to attend the program goes up dramatically,” he says of prospective online learners.
4. Enroll in one course: Starting with just one online class can help prospective students evaluate a program without paying for an entire credential, says Khusro Kidwai, assistant dean of distance learning at the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies.
In some programs, students can start as a nondegree-seeking student and then transition into the full program, experts say.
After taking a course, students can also decide whether to pursue the online degree or several smaller credentials such as certificates to build their way there, Kidwai says.
5. Access course materials online: Actual online course syllabuses and lecture previews are accessible on the internet for some programs – similar to what prospective on-ground students might use to research traditional classes.
Syllabuses and, in some cases, lectures for upcoming on-campus and online classes at Harvard University are available through the Harvard Extension School. Temple University’s Fox School of Business offers sample lectures on YouTube.
6. Consider massive open online courses, or MOOCs: These are full, recorded lectures from real university faculty, usually developed by a provider such as edX or Coursera along with a university.
Many can be accessed online for free by anybody with internet, though there are also options for paid certificates.
Prospective students should “take a look at one maybe in a program that they’re considering studying,” says Cook, “or maybe a program that they would just like more information about to find out if online study is something that would be of interest to them.”