ccDaily > The risks and rewards of online learning

The risks and rewards of online learning

Chris Bustamante

​In 2008, investors wanted to buy Rio Salado College, the nation’s largest online public community college headquartered in Tempe, Ariz. The offer was more than $400 million with plans to convert it into a national, for-profit, online school.

Rio Salado wasn’t for sale, but the offer proved how much demand exists for serving students who find traditional education systems inconvenient and need the flexibility of online formats.

Online learning may not be the first thing that comes to mind when community colleges consider providing support for student success. But that mindset is changing. It has to. The 2011 Sloan Survey of Online Learning reported that more than six million college students in the fall of 2010 took at least one online course, comprising nearly one-third of all college and university students. The growth rate in online course enrollment far exceeds the growth rate of the overall higher education student population.

Still, there is healthy skepticism about the proliferation of online learning and views still differ about its value. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education, less than 30 percent of the public believes that online and classroom courses provide the same educational value. Half of college presidents share that belief.

Any way you look at it, online learning is an increasingly vital part of producing the number of qualified graduates needed to meet future workforce demands—when it is done correctly.

A calculated risk

In 1996, Rio Salado, one of 10 Maricopa Community Colleges, took a calculated risk and began offering courses online—16 to start—just when the Internet was taking off. Critics at the time challenged the quality of online education and claimed that students wouldn’t adjust well to such a radical change in their learning environment. But Maricopa and Rio Salado pushed ahead, determined to create an innovative, non-traditional and nimble approach that is responsive to and supportive of changing student needs.

The risks have proven to be worth it. While no one could have predicted the economic environment that students and higher education face today, making the decision to move online proved to be provident for the college and students. 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.

Keeping costs down

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.

Without the expense of a traditional campus, Rio Salado has been able to focus on building and improving its RioLearn platform, a customized learning management system that provides access to course-related resources, instructors, fellow students and other support services.

Focused on student support

Meeting students’ needs means providing access to robust, comprehensive support services that are customized for their complex lifestyles, whether they are a working adult, an active military student accessing their coursework online or someone taking in-person classes in adult basic education, incarcerated re-entry, early college or workforce training programs. Today’s students need the resources of round-the-clock instructional and technology helpdesks, tutoring and virtual library services. Additionally, we never cancel an online class and offer the flexibility of 48 start dates a year.

Students also need real-time support to keep them on track. Predictive analytic technology allows the college to monitor online student engagement and predict by the eighth day of class the level of success students will have in a course. When needed, instructors facilitate interventions to minimize risks and support successful course completion.

Building a culture of unified support focused on completion won’t happen overnight. It took 30 years for Rio Salado to get to this point. Our upside-down faculty model has made it possible for the college to adapt a corporate “systems approach,” and all Rio Salado staff and faculty participate in a training program to instill a unified commitment to helping students complete their degree programs.

Technical challenges

Staying ahead of the online curve comes with its share of challenges. Rio Salado had to build its own learning management system because there wasn’t one available that would support all of the features that our faculty and students wanted. In partnership with Microsoft and Dell, RioLearn was designed to be scalable to more than 100,000 students.

However, a few years ago, it didn’t fully support Mac users. Although students could access their coursework, they had to switch Internet browsers to do so. A new version of RioLearn was launched in 2010 to help students access their courses, regardless of the platform they are using.

We’ve also learned that many of our students are co-enrolled in traditional colleges and universities. They come to Rio Salado for flexibility, affordability and convenience to accelerate their degree on their terms. They bank credits and ultimately transfer those credits to complete their degrees at another institution.

A recent report examines Rio Salado’s efforts and the experience and perspectives of more than 30 institutions throughout the U.S. addressing similar challenges to ensure student success—especially for low-income, minority and adult students—and pursuing promising approaches to increase college completion rates.

Re-imagining the system

Our country can’t continue to allow millions of people who are college material to fall through the cracks. We must find new, convenient and high-quality educational options for students who might otherwise have missed out on a college education. That means serving more students in more places—especially where college enrollments have been capped—through efforts such as online early college initiatives, by creating cohorts at the high-school level and developing open-source courses.

With tuition rising faster than the rate of inflation, and the best-paying jobs requiring some form of postsecondary degree, specialized certification or licensure, we have to find solutions that lower costs for students. We need to innovate. We need new models of education to leverage public resources through private and public partnerships and increase the capacity to serve non-traditional students through productive and cost-efficient means.

It’s encouraging to see the rapid growth in affordable online learning. It has broken down the barriers of time, distance and affordability without sacrificing high-quality academics. But shoring up its credibility and value for students means heeding some of the lessons learned over the past 15 years. The stakes for getting it right are certainly high and getting higher.

Bustamante is president of Rio Salado College, an online higher education institution that is part of the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona.