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Know Your Student

Listening to non-traditional students and providing support services to meet their needs are success factors for online learning.

Linda Thor

Rio Salado College President Linda Thor:
“We are focused on access, affordability,
convenience, and flexibility.”

When Linda Thor was a graduate student, working full-time and caring for her family, she promised herself that if she ever became a college president, she would make it easier for non-traditional students who must juggle school, work, and family to be successful in higher education. Now, she’s president of Rio Salado College (AZ), a noncampus college that is the second largest of the 10 schools in the Maricopa Community College District (AZ), serving some 45,000 credit and 15,000 non-credit students each year with more than 425 online courses; 50 customized partnerships with business, industry, and government agencies; and 46 dual enrollment programs in high schools. We asked Thor about Rio Salado’s approach to serving the non-traditional student.

You call Rio Salado ‘the college within everyone’s reach.’ What is your approach to making that so?

Rio Salado was founded in 1978 as a college without walls. We were never intended to have a traditional campus; rather, we were meant to take education out into the community, as a distance learning college. Although we do have an assortment of small service centers at various places around the county, and the technology we use has changed over the years, we have stayed true to being a non-campus college.

We are focused on access, affordability, convenience, and flexibility. Most of our students are working adults. Something that’s quite unique about us is that “semesters” are virtually meaningless to us; we are truly a year-round college, and the vast majority of our online courses start every two weeks. So, the longest that a student would have to wait to start a class with us is 14 days. Gone is the structure of the fall start, the spring start, and the summer session. And we use an asynchronous model, so students move through courses at their own pace.

Along with offering full degrees and certificates online, we also provide support services to students online and over the phone. Of course, someone could choose to access services in person. Though if someone were to visit our main administrative student services headquarters, he or she would quickly notice that we have no ability to accommodate lines—that’s because we never have any lines! Most students register, get academic advising, access the library, get tutoring, pursue financial aid, use the technical help desk or the instructional help desk, and shop at the bookstore remotely. All of that is available to students online and over the phone.

Who are your students, and what are their technology expectations?

Our typical student is a 30-something female who is working full-time. She is usually a parent; often a single parent. However, we do serve all generations, and one of the things we constantly keep in mind is that we are dealing with everyone: digital natives, digital immigrants, and “technonots,” if you will.

We’re finding that the Generation X and Millennial students who are now arriving at our doors are very savvy about technology, and they certainly are sophisticated in their use of it. Their expectations are high when it comes to incorporating technology into their daily lives, and they use it differently than those of us who are technology immigrants. We spend a lot of time talking to our students in focus groups, surveying them, and observing their behavior.

'Semesters' are virtually meaningless to us — we are truly a year-round college, and the vast majority of our online courses start every two weeks.

How do you use technology to meet the needs and preferences of these non-traditional students?

One of the ways we innovate is by having both a technology help desk and an instructional help desk. The instructional help desk supports faculty—particularly adjunct faculty—as well as students who need assistance or have questions when a faculty member may not be immediately available to them. Both of those help desks are operated 24/7, because our time-strapped working adult student often needs services from us at 9 or 10 at night. And more than 9,000 students in the military access our services worldwide, often in time zones very different from ours.

To address the interest in text messaging, we’ve now made registration for returning students available by text message. Chat at Rio gives students instant online access to our advisors and to the technical and instructional help desks. And we’ve adopted Rio Cast, which provides podcasts of events here at the college as well as other kinds of audio materials that our students want to access. We’re also doing a number of things related to the library: We have more than 30,000 eBooks, and we have 24-hour access to an online librarian.

So, we are listening very closely to our students, observing how they use technology, and attempting to build those approaches into our services as well as our instruction.

RIO SALADO’S administrative buildings

RIO SALADO’S administrative buildings
house two IT support teams—a technology
help desk and an instructional help desk
—serving an entirely online community.

As a non-campus institution, do you have a large number of adjunct faculty?

The use of adjuncts definitely distinguishes Rio Salado from traditional institutions. Even though we have 45,000 credit students, we have only 33 permanent faculty members, who we call “residential” faculty members. But teaching classes is not their primary job; rather, they serve as the instructional leaders of the college in terms of developing new curricula, mentoring and monitoring adjunct faculty, researching new technologies and instructional fields, assessing student achievement, and so on. The vast majority of instruction at this college is provided by adjunct faculty, and we have more than 1,000 of those faculty members.

Something else that’s somewhat unique about us is the way we approach course development. What you typically find in a traditional college is that an individual faculty member will develop a course—say an English composition course—and put it online, and that faculty member is the only one who teaches that course. A second faculty member may also want to teach online, but he will develop his own version of the English composition course. Here at Rio Salado, however, we use an instructional development team to place our courses online. That team includes a content expert, an instructional designer, technical support staff, and student services support staff to ensure that all the necessary components are incorporated into the course. Typically, the course is then piloted by a fulltime faculty member, and once it is perfected, it is taught by any number of adjunct faculty.

Besides understanding the needs of your non-traditional students, what makes Rio Salado so successful in online education?

While we are seeing a rush of virtually all higher education institutions to get into online learning, simply putting a class online d'es not get the job done. What we believe leads to our success—and we enjoy about an 80 to 85 percent retention of our online learners—is the support service component we have in place, along with our systems approach to dealing with the online learner. You can’t expect a faculty member to put a course online and then be able to meet all of the students’ needs for tutoring, advising, testing, and logistical considerations. You’ve got to have the entire college positioned to support that online learner.

What is your greatest wish for community colleges in general?

Community colleges are the workhorses of higher education, yet they are often unsung her'es. I’m looking forward to a day when legislators come to appreciate the important component of higher education that community colleges comprise, and when they recognize that much of the innovation in higher education is originating at community colleges because of our close ties to our communities, as well as to our students.

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