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