Online learning expands access, success

As president of Rio Salado College in Arizona, an online pioneer, Chris Bustamente explains the risks and rewards of online learning in a Community College Times commentary.

Rio Salado, one of 10 Maricopa Community Colleges, began offering online classes in 1996, when the Internet was taking off.

Rio Salado extended educational access to students who found traditional college to be out of reach in Arizona, nationwide and around the world. The college currently serves nearly 70,000 students each year, with more than 41,000 enrolled in 600-plus online courses.

To keep costs down, Rio Salado supports more than 60 certificate and degree programs with just 22 residential faculty and more than 1,400 adjunct faculty. Our “one-course, many sections” model uses a master course approved by the resident faculty and taught by adjunct faculty in more than 6,000 course sections. The college’s cost to educate students is as much as 48 percent less than peer institutions nationwide.

Rio Salado created its own learning-management platform, RioLearn, in partnership with Microsoft and Dell, to provide access to resources, instructors, classmates and support services. At any hour, students can reach instructional and technology help desks, tutoring and virtual library services.

Predictive analytic technology monitors online student engagement. By the eighth day of class, it can predict students’ likely success in a course, allowing instructors to intervene to help students.

Many of Rio Salado’s students use flexible, affordable and transferable online credits to complete their degrees or certificates elsewhere, Bustamente writes.

Rio Salado is helping increase college completion rates for low-income, minority and adult students, according to a recent report on institutions that are Beating the Odds.