20 Years Later: Drexel University Online

Dragons enjoy themselves at Drexel's Tech Lending Library.
Dragons enjoy themselves at Drexel's Tech Lending Library.

Technological. Innovative. Forward-thinking. These are the words most often used to describe Drexel University. Since its founding in 1891, Drexel has been on the leading edge when it comes to combining education with technology to provide students with a more dynamic learning experience.

It’s no wonder, then, that Drexel has become a leader in the field of online education. Today’s Drexel University Online (DUO, formerly known as Drexel e-Learning) was formed in 2001 to bring the same Drexel passion for interactive, experiential learning to online students. Always on the forefront of educational innovation, Drexel continues to focus on challenging expectations around what technology-enhanced education can be and pushing boundaries to bring new opportunities to its students — both online and on campus.

“The manner in which students learn will continue to evolve as it has over these past two decades,” said Executive Vice President and Provost M. Brian Blake, PhD. “Instead of face-to-face lecture-based instruction, online lectures infused with hands-on sessions will be the norm for all classes on university campuses. With its pioneering role in distance learning, 7,100 online students enrolled and a 20-year track record, Drexel University Online is central to Drexel’s continuing success as an urban research university.”

A History of Pioneering Online Education

But in looking toward the future of online education, it’s imperative to take a look back at the beginning.

Drexel has a long and illustrious history of pioneering new practices in the world of online education. A grant from the Sloan Foundation in the early 1990s — which was awarded to only 10 universities —allowed the University to begin exploring the world of online learning. That same exploration led to its becoming the first university to launch a fully online degree program in 1996 by offering a MS in information systems.

This program was quickly followed by a fully online MS in library and information science degree. Not long after that, the newly established College of Nursing and Health Professions created a hybrid master’s course in nursing leadership, which evolved into a fully online course at the request of students. Since then, Drexel has greatly expanded its virtual options to include over 140 online degree and certificate programs that enroll more than 7,000 students from all 50 states and more than 30 countries. Moreover, the University’s faculty and staff are internationally recognized for their expertise in online education and have spoken about the subject in conferences around the world.

Of course, the online student experience in 1996 was pretty different from the online student experience in 2016. Unlike the interactive Blackboard platform used today, Drexel’s first online learning platform was Lotus Notes, which allowed professors to post lecture notes for students to respond to. There were no videos, no message boards and no group work; students completed their courses with no significant interaction with classmates or professors.

Dragons at The Collaboratory, a showcase of emerging technologies and innovation.

Engaging Online Students With New Technology

Luckily, however, today’s online classes aren’t nearly as isolating.

“As technology advances, Drexel has found new and compelling ways to improve the online learning experience for students,” said Senior Vice President of Online Learning at Drexel and President of Drexel University Online Susan Aldridge, PhD. “Our goal is to empower our online students with the tools they need to not only learn more effectively but to also create a better sense of community with their classmates.”  

To help facilitate this goal, Drexel started the Online Learning Council (OLC) in 2009, creating a group of nearly 100 faculty, TAs and professional staff from across the University that focuses on improving the online learning experience through new and more effective technologies and teaching approaches. 

For example, to provide a more dynamic learning experience (not to mention to relieve the boredom of learning via lecture notes only), Drexel uses a variety of interactive learning programs such as Practice (formerly ApprenNet), a Philadelphia-based educational technology startup. Co-founded by Thomas R. Kline School of Law professor Karl Okamoto, JD, Practice allows students to upload videos of themselves completing an assigned task (such as demonstrating a nurse-patient interaction or negotiating a difficult contract). They can then watch and assess the videos of their classmates, while also viewing best practice videos and receiving expert feedback.

Drexel has also created some online learning tools in-house. The award-winning Test Drive allows potential students to experiment with Drexel’s virtual learning environment for a week at no cost before they apply. This innovative tool enables them to become familiar with the Blackboard system, learn more about admissions requirements and support services and even submit a sample assignment. It also encourages students to develop valuable connections within the Digital Dragon community through engagement with enrollment counselors, academic advisors, current students and future classmates.

Building An Online Community

In a similar vein, the Virtual Orientation begins a week prior to the beginning of classes and is meant to help new online students acquaint themselves with the Drexel community. They can learn about Drexel’s history, explore the resources available to online students and live-stream special, on-campus events like Convocation. And like the Test Drive, the Virtual Orientation offers these students a unique opportunity to build relationships with Drexel faculty and staff, as well as with their fellow classmates.   

A screenshot of Drexel University Online’s virtual Test Drive, which allows potential students to test out Drexel’s virtual learning environment for a week at no cost before they apply.

Drexel also provides services for those who may need help navigating the online application and financial aid process. DUO’s enrollment counselors are on hand to assist with the application process, reaching out to prospective students to ensure that they have submitted all of the necessary materials, while also answering questions about individual programs and financial aid. Likewise, these counselors host online open houses and webinars, designed to furnish additional information about both specific programs and the enrollment process. Once a prospective student has been accepted, they are then assigned an academic advisor from their program of choice, who serves as a primary point of contact from enrollment through graduation. 

DUO manages five social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube) that are specifically aimed at engaging the online student community. These social media accounts provide useful information, such as news stories and infographics, that are relevant to the lives of online students and stress their connection with the larger Drexel community. By posting photos of the campus, sharing faculty recognition and including sports updates, online students are better able to identify as Drexel students.

DUO also produces content for its website that is designed specifically for the needs of online students. The Digital Dragon blog features profiles of online students, study tips and career advice, along with infographics used throughout the website and social media channels to illustrate everything from nursing industry insights to how employers view online degrees. There’s also an online Career Development Center to support students during their job search, offering a wealth of information like resume writing, interviewing techniques and personal branding and professional networking tips.

Drexel’s commitment to fostering a sense of community for its online students, as well as its ongoing dedication to providing students the most advanced online learning technology, is what has made Drexel a leader in the field for the last 20 years. For more information or to begin an application, visit https://online.drexel.edu.