Published on 2017/09/18
The EvoLLLution | Test Driving the Road to Online Success
By allowing students to test drive online offerings before committing to becoming an online student, institutions can be more sure that their online learners understand the challenges of studying online, and students are more likely to persist and forge connections with the institution.

In over two decades of work in adult and distance education, I have led more than a few winning initiatives to grow enrollment, retention and completion rates while delivering an exceptional education. So, when asked for the secret to our success, I invariably reply that it’s all about creating a truly meaningful student experience—from the first point of contact, through graduation and beyond.

To be sure, an exceptional virtual experience that is consistent, connected and customized not only enhances university brand affinity, it also promotes persistence by adding considerable value to the academic investment. This is a big plus for busy, working adults who make up a sizeable portion of the online education market.

The Readiness Factor

Yet while e-learning has been around for years as a convenient academic option, we have since learned that it isn’t a “good fit” for everyone. In fact, over the decades, we watched far too many students drop out of the online programs they had begun, for a variety of reasons—from incompatible personal attributes and hectic lifestyles, to poor technical skills and inappropriate expectations.

Of course, research has shown that the better prepared students are to navigate the virtual classroom, the more successful they will be in the long run, a finding that has prompted online education providers to develop student “fitness” assessments, which are a good first step to enrollment. But most of these assessments are self-administered checklists or quizzes for gauging online readiness, based on individual traits—such as self-discipline, learning styles and comfort with technology—rather than innovative, technology-enhanced solutions for enrolling online students and reinforcing their potential for success.

In tackling this challenge at Drexel University Online (DUO), we launched a free, weeklong online course that allows prospective students to test drive virtual learning before they enroll, to determine if it is a good fit for meeting their academic needs, while also building their affinity for the Drexel Dragon community. And based on hundreds of prospective student comments like this one, we feel sure that we are on the right path: “I had concerns about how studying online was going to be possible; but after participating in the test drive, I feel more confident that this is a goal I can accomplish. Guess I can now call myself a dragon!”

An Authentic Experience

Hosted in Blackboard, DUO’s Test Drive provides prospective students with a robust and authentic virtual learning experience that closely simulates what they can expect should they enroll in a Drexel online program. As such, they submit practice assignments and take part in themed, threaded discussions with Drexel Ambassadors, a cadre of more than 160 online faculty and staff, current students and alumni.

They also learn more about individual programs, admission requirements and support services, while accessing tried and true tips and tools for online success. Likewise, Test Drive participants have a unique chance to think through their academic goals and motivations, as well as connect with other prospective Digital Dragons, who may have many of the same questions and concerns about online learning.

To ensure that this experience meets the quality standards we use in designing our online courses, we have incorporated plenty of engaging and easily consumable content in various forms—videos, infographics, gamification and interactive discussion forums—based on solid data around user preferences and cognitive science. Likewise, this content is built as discrete objects—a digital toolkit, so to speak—that can be reassembled around individual student needs, to promote a more customized virtual learning experience.

A Valuable Recruitment and Retention Tool

Launched as a pilot program in December 2014 with 27 participants interested in Drexel’s online undergraduate nursing program, the Test Drive has since registered over 7,300 prospective students, across all the university’s online programs, with a significant number of these students reporting that it made them more likely to attend Drexel. In fact, last year our enrollment conversion rate was nearly double (around 38.3 percent) among online prospects and applicants who had participated in the Test Drive than among those who had not (19.7 percent).

What’s more, the Test Drive has proven to be a creative and cost-effective approach to gleaning useful information with which to boost our online student recruitment efforts. By incorporating targeted learning activities and surveys within the Test Drive experience, we have collected a great deal of valuable student data—both quantitative and qualitative—around such salient issues as motivation, prior experience and common concerns, digital habits and learning preferences.

Information like this empowers us to craft student marketing content and messaging, which speaks more effectively to motivation and proactively addresses known concerns. It has also enabled us to zero in on optimal communications strategies and channels for reaching prospective students at every stage of the funnel, based on what we know about their collective habits and preferences.

At the same time, this data is laying the groundwork for us to boost online student persistence, by providing a virtual learning experience that is increasingly more engaging and responsive, connected and customized. For example, by measuring perceived self-efficacy in using the Blackboard LMS before, during and after Test Drive participation, we have developed user-friendly multimedia content with step-by-step instructions for better navigating the classroom environment. We are also accumulating ample data around the effectiveness with which participants use a variety of digital enhancements to engage in an active, authentic and personalized virtual learning experience—which has proven a boon to course design and instruction.

But equally important, the Test Drive offers an excellent opportunity for Drexel to conduct trailblazing research around the all-important online education “fit” factor. Indeed, by having valuable baseline data for benchmarking student readiness against performance and persistence, we can now begin comparing academic success levels, at various time points, between those students who took part in this free course and those who did not.

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