Rio Salado offers flexibility, low pay

Flexible work hours and good training for online teaching makes for happy instructors at Arizona’s Rio Salado College, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Primarily an online college, Rio Salado employs 22 full-time instructors and 1,300 adjuncts. Pay is low. There are no benefits. Yet the college received high marks for job satisfaction in the Chronicle‘s Great Colleges to Work For survey.

Rebecca Chase, who has a master’s degree from Texas A&M, teaches communications online, while raising two young children.

 “The expectations of me were very clear,” Ms. Chase says. “I don’t recall ever feeling stressed or overwhelmed or unsure. And now I can work in between naps, during play dates, and after the kids go to bed.”

. . . Ms. Chase received a two-hour orientation session when she was hired last fall. Then she was required to take “Introduction to Human Communication”—the very course she is now teaching—to get a feel for how students experience the course. Once a course has been created, all instructors teach the same material, students work at their own pace, and new students can start every Monday.

“You need to be prepared at any time to grade a Lesson 5 or a Lesson 10,” she says.

The faculty gathers for on-campus meetings only a few times a year.

Nearly all the comments come from angry adjuncts, who think flexibility isn’t all that great if the pay is peanuts. Rio Salado adjuncts earn $1,200 to $2,000 per course, the full-time equivalent of $16,000 a year, notes Hanzimanolis in comments.

Also on the Chronicle‘s list of great two-year colleges to work for are:  Howard Community College (Maryland), Lake Area Technical Institute (South Dakota), Lord Fairfax Community College (Virginia), Miami Dade College (Florida),  Mitchell Technical Institute (South Dakota, Morgan Community College (Colorado), Panola College (Texas), Sandhills Community College (North Carolina), Santa Rosa Junior College (California), Somerset Community College (Kentucky) and Southside Virginia Community College.

New tool helps adults get credit for experience

To award college credits for students’ prior learning, colleges need a way to assess their training and experience, notes Community College Times. Rio Salado College in Arizona is using LearningCounts, an electronic portfolio-assessment initiative from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

Students create electronic portfolios that are “assessed by expert faculty members from across the U.S. who examine the content and breadth of each student’s on-the-job learning, corporate training, independent study, military service and volunteer service,” reports Community College Times. LearningCounts then recommends how much credit to award.

Houston Community College (HCC) in Texas is using CAEL’s tool to provide an objective portfolio assessment, said Madeline Burillo, associate vice chancellor for workforce instruction at HCC.

“Especially in large community college systems where you have different colleges, a department chair at one college might have a different opinion about a portfolio than a department chair from another college.”

North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) is testing LearningCounts to replace a cumbersome portfolio-assessment process.

Big Data goes to college

How Big Data is Changing the College Experience

Presented By:

Credits for competence

More colleges are looking at competency rather than class time in awarding credits, reports the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

In some cases, colleges add competency measures to traditional courses. For example, Delaware County Community College (DCCC) in Pennsylvania identifies the learning outcomes expected for each course as well as the competencies expected of degree earners. These range from mastering reading, writing, speech, math and technology to developing a “concept of self” and appreciating diversity.

 A few colleges and universities are using a competency model to “disrupt” higher education.

At DePaul University’s School for New Learning (SNL), students can demonstrate they’ve mastered the competencies required for a degree by preparing portfolios showing their prior learning or taking courses.

At Western Governors University (WGU), there are no required courses, just required competencies. Students gain knowledge and skills on their own, with the help of  faculty mentors, but they can demonstrate competencies at their own pace and earn a degree based on what they have learned from a variety of sources, including work and other life experiences.

Arizona’s Rio Salado College, which has a huge online enrollment, incorporates competency assessment into each course.

Assessed learning outcomes are critical thinking, writing, information literacy, reading, and, recently adopted, sustainability.

Both DCCC and Rio Salado offer a quality guarantee: If a graduate’s skills or competencies do not meet the expectations of employers or, for DCCC, transfer baccalaureate institutions, the student may enroll for more coursework at no charge.

Last week, the University of Wisconsin announced a flexible degree program:

The unique self-paced, competency-based model will allow students to start classes anytime and earn credit for what they already know. Students will be able to demonstrate college-level competencies based on material they already learned in school, on the job, or on their own, as soon as they can prove that they know it.

The goal is to make a college degree “significantly more affordable and accessible to substantially more people.”


Colleges greenlight data mining

Data-mining is helping Rio Salado College predict online students’ likely success and failure, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Arizona community college is a pioneer in online education.

By the eighth day of class, Rio Salado College predicts with 70-percent accuracy whether a student will score a C or better in a course.

That’s possible because a Web course can be like a classroom with a camera rigged over every desk. The learning software logs students’ moves, leaving a rich “clickstream” for data sleuths to manipulate.

Running the algorithms, officials found clusters of behaviors that helped predict success. Did a student log in to the course homepage? View the syllabus? Open an assessment? When did she turn in an assignment? How does his behavior compare with that of previous students?

Instructors can see at a glance who’s green (likely to complete the course with a C or better), yellow (at risk of not earning a C), and red (highly unlikely to earn a C).  That makes it possible to offer extra help before it’s too late.

The college is trying to intervene before the lights turn yellow or red.

For example, early data showed students in general-education courses who log in on Day 1 of class succeed 21 percent more often than those who don’t. So Rio Salado blasted welcome e-mails to students the night before courses began, encouraging them to log in.

The next step is a widespread rollout of the color-coded alerts, one that will put the technology in the hands of many more professors and students. The hope, (physical sciences instructor Shannon) Corona says, is that a yellow signal might prompt students to say to themselves: “Gosh, I’m only spending five hours a week in this course. Obviously students who have taken this course before me and were successful were spending more time. So maybe I need to adjust my schedule.”

In the future, colleges may ask students for an array of personal data in order to customize courses to fit each student’s abilities, interests and personalities, says George Siemens, an analytics expert at Canada’s Athabasca University.



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.

Financial aid cheats target online programs

Financial aid fraud rings are targeting online college programs, according to a report (pdf) by the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General. Some 100 investigations are open.

Fraud rings seek federal aid for “straw students,” who may not know their names are being used, reports the New York Times.  The college takes some of the aid to pay for tuition and sends the rest to the student as a “refund” to cover books, transportation and living expenses.

“Pell-runners” stop attending class once they receive the refund. Online students never have to show up at all.

Kathleen S. Tighe, the inspector general, suggested that colleges clamp down on identity verification, and that Congress and the Education Department rethink whether online students, mostly working adults, should be eligible for the same federal aid to cover living expenses as students who attend on-campus programs.

“Without that money there would be significantly less incentive for this particular scam,” Ms. Tighe noted.

Community college students get bigger Pell “refunds” because tuition is low, encouraging Pell runners and fraud rings.

At Rio Salado College, an online community college in Arizona, 64 people were convicted in a $538,000 scheme that unraveled after an employee in Rio Salado’s financial aid office noticed similar handwriting on several applications. The ringleader, Trenda Halton, a student who pleaded guilty last year, worked with several accomplices who recruited “straw students” to apply for Pell grants and loans. Ms. Halton signed into their online classes to meet Rio Salado’s attendance requirements, then took a cut of $500 to $1,000 once the aid money came through.

Axia College, a two-year program of the for-profit University of Phoenix, has identified 750 fraud rings involving 15,000 people. Four staffers work full time to verify students’ identities and weed out scammers and Pell runners.


Rio Salado develops plagiarism detector

Rio Salado College‘s peer-to-peer plagiarism detector has been awarded the 2010 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award.

A pioneer in distance learning, the college’s faculty were early adopters of anti-plagiarism technologies, such as Turnitin, says Vernon Smith, vice president of academic affairs. But instructors needed a tool to compare student submissions with work submitted in other sections or previous semesters. To save money, Rio Salado developed its own system in house.

The plagiarism detector is fast, accurate and robust, Smith says. It’s not fooled when students modify paragraph orders or replace words with synonyms. Matches are reported to faculty chairs via e-mail within 12 hours.

“Plagiarism Alert!” emails indicate how similar the two submissions are (i.e. 85% similar). They also contain all relevant student and course information, along with the full text submissions from both students. The submissions are presented together with exact matches highlighted to help facilitate accurate analysis. Although the system detects both semantic and exact matches, only the exact matches are highlighted within the emails for simplicity.

The faculty chair  investigates the case and decides on a sanction, which can range from   requiring the student to take a remediation module on academic integrity, a “0” on the assignment, an F for the class or expulsion.

Arizona: CCs have 18.2% completion rate

Arizona’s community colleges are drop-out factories, charges Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute. The average three-year completion rate for full-time students is 18.2 percent.

Rio Salado College, a pioneer in online learning, boasts a 45 percent completion rate; at the second-ranking college, only 26 percent of full-time students complete a credential or degree in three years.

Florida community colleges do much better than Arizona’s two-year schools, Ladner points out.