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2007 Campus Technology Innovators: Portals

2007 Campus Technology Innovators

Innovator: Rio Salado College

Enhancing the eLearning experience with a truly comprehensive, customized portal

As a higher education institution without a physical campus, Rio Salado College (AZ) relies on its web portal to deliver and manage courses, support and communicate with students, provide information to the college community, and more. In the past, an out-of-box solution from FirstClass had served the college's needs well; however, with some 60,000 students (27,000 of them online) and growing, Rio Salado needed a customized, scalable portal solution with built-in online support, to provide a more user-friendly experience and mesh with the school's integrated approach to eLearning.

In a partnership with tech giants Microsoft and Dell, Ed Kelty, dean of IT, and Angela Ambrosia, faculty chair for web technology and innovation, led a cross-functional team of more than 100 faculty and staff across numerous departments to develop RioLearn, a completely integrated online course management, support, and delivery system now used for all of Rio Salado's online courses. (MSS Technologies also played a consulting role in the project.)

Technology choices. A combination of technologies were used to create the customized RioLearn system:

  • RioLearn interface: Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 2.0
  • Base operating system: Microsoft Windows 2003
  • Back-end database: Microsoft SQL 2000
  • E-mail and calendaring: Microsoft Exchange 2003
  • Back-end and front-end servers and data storage: Dell
  • Assessment tools: Questionmark Perception

user-friendly portal, all
aspects of a student's
learning experience are
completely integrated
and always just a click away.

A powerful portal. Now, through one portal, students have access to every college resource: With the click of a mouse, they can access assignments and grades, e-mail their instructors, contact the help desk, and more. Faculty can manage their courses, receive instant alerts when assignments are completed or grades are reported, and manage threaded discussions. Rio Salado can manage and deliver course content faster and more easily than ever before, providing students with the most up-to-date information. And the scalable system is ready to handle a future load of 100,000 or more eLearning students annually.

Enhanced user experience. The typical Rio Salado student is a busy 29-year-old, trying to juggle career and family while getting an education. Key to the project development was making sure RioLearn was extremely user-friendly, says Ambrosia. "Time is the number one barrier for successful completion of a degree. We wanted to make sure that RioLearn was fast and easy."

Along the left side of the RioLearn interface lie all student-related functions, such as a student's account, online tutoring, his or her personal UPeers space (a customized social networking site for Rio students, akin to MySpace), software and hardware discount purchase programs, and more. In the middle of the interface are class-related functions, including a notification of new e-mails, course news and events, instant alerts, and quick links to the course syllabus and lessons. Along the right-hand side are college-related functions such as the bookstore, class schedule, registration, an electronic library with 24/7/365 librarian chat, and financial aid information, among other things. In essence, all aspects of a student's learning experience, including instant access to 24/7 technical and instructional help desks, e-mail, and helpful phone numbers, are completely integrated and always just a click away.

RioLearn continues to be customized and enhanced as needed by students, faculty, and staff. For example, one recent update was the integration of a program called Wimba, allowing students to leave voicemail for their instructors via the internet. Using a microphone and personal computer, students can leave messages without needing to pick up the telephone.

Competitive edge. Student response to RioLearn has been overwhelmingly positive, including user comments such as, "It's really easy! Most of the things that I needed were right there. I found it very useful," and "I found it easy and organized; it took me right where I wanted to be." That user satisfaction is crucial, emphasizes Ambrosia, especially in the online arena, where students now expect information and services instantly. "Students today demand that the information they want be accessible when they want it. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere," she says. Those demands are met quickly and easily, thanks to RioLearn: "We made sure that the information students need is at their fingertips."

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