A Systems Approach to Online Learning

Award Winner: 
2002 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Scarafiotti Carol
Rio Salado College
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Rio Salado College
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Rio Salado College works as a system to support its distance/online program.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

How this practice supports access: Rio Salado College's twenty-two years of experience with distance learning, along with its extensive use of adjunct faculty and its belief in systems thinking, has shaped its online program. Currently, Rio's online program offers students more than two hundred unique courses, 90 percent of the courses is available for students to enroll in every two weeks (twenty-six start times per year), with the remainder of the courses usually available for enrollment six to eight times per year. We never cancel a class that is offered online. Even if only one student enrolls, we can accommodate that student. When we survey students about what they like most about our distance program, they always give high ratings to the convenience factor--having access to education when they need and want it. Technology provides the management system that enables faculty members to handle several starts at one time. The technology also allows for timely interaction between faculty members and students, thus keeping everyone on track. Payment to adjunct faculty is adjusted according to the number of starts and the number of weeks the course will run. Because faculty at Rio are facilitators of student learning rather than presenters of information, it is easy to respond to students individually. Courses are created through a course-development process that ensures that each course aligns with the "Rio brand" of distance learning. All courses are asynchronous (testing is the only face-to-face requirement) and include a consistent navigational template and a focus on developing independent learners. The course-development process produces one version of each course, and adjunct faculty members teach/facilitate the majority of Rio's courses. All students and faculty are supported by a full range of online services. At Rio, you will not find a distance or online learning department. Rio's philosophy is that the entire college must work as a system to support its distance/online program. Six areas of the college form the system that supports Rio's online students and faculty members:


  1. The course development and support department is a cross-college group that makes decisions regarding format, delivery, and emerging technologies. The department links a content expert (usually a faculty member) with a team of specialists, each of whom plays a part in the creation of an online course. Depending on the complexity of the course, the team can include a faculty member who has extensive expertise in the development of online courses and the use of online technology, a web technician, a programmer, an editor, a individual to handle copyright issues, and a individual to coordinate initial testing of the course. The team also ensures that the course aligns with Rio's brand of distance learning.
  2. The faculty services department recruits adjunct faculty and works with the full-time faculty and support team to provide new adjunct faculty with training. Adjunct faculty members learn about the use of technology, the online pedagogy, and Rio Salado College's expectation for providing timely student feedback.
  3. The student services department provides a full range of support services via phone and/or online. Services include tutoring (our "Beep a Tutor" program uses pagers to provide a student with a tutor within one to two hours of the page, seven days a week, fourteen hours a day), advising and counseling (advisors call at-risk students which are determined by surveys), library services (including a reference librarian available seven days a week), testing (proctors are offered at six Phoenix locations six days a week or through an approved proctor at educational institutions or military bases), and an online bookstore.
  4. The information services department provides a technology help desk available seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, to all faculty members and students. In addition, it provides other support technology such as voice-mailboxes for all faculty members and for students in language courses.
  5. The admissions and records department provides a variety of rosters and grade reports every two weeks to accommodate Rio's twenty-six rolling enrollment periods. Every start date is assigned a unique section number.
  6. The marketing department provides course schedules and brochures and also manages a call center that provides prospective students with information about distance learning options.
Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

At Rio Salado College we believe that if all the parts of the system work well together, most students can succeed in the online classroom, so rather than screening out "at risk" students, we try to identify them and provide assistance to them. Our retention data tell us that 80 percent of students who are active in the second week of the course will successfully complete the course.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Carol Scarafiotti, Dean of Instruction