How the Pandemic Experience Could be an Opportunity to Improve Online Learning: Let’s Not Waste It!

Who would have guessed that it would take a pandemic to expose online education as a critical modality to keep students connected to their educational studies? Well, it happened, and online education is proving to be an effective extension or alternative to the traditional classroom that many of us in higher education have recognized for some time now.

As the former President of Rio Salado College (Rio), a predominantly online community college serving nearly 50,000 students annually, 28,000 of which are online students in Arizona and several other states, I have witnessed the power of online education firsthand and so has the college since 1995 when its first online classes were offered. Rio learned quickly that when online courses and programs are done well with an emphasis on quality and accessibility, they can be a critical avenue to provide today’s students with an important option to pursue higher education.

At every annual Rio commencement ceremony, our student speakers give moving testimonials about how online education gave them the power and the means to be able to access higher education given their non-traditional paths. Many were busy parents who were working one or two jobs, raising their children, and wanting to improve their lives through education. They often completed their online courses late in the evening when their kids were asleep and when time was their own.  

Rio has an asynchronous learning platform, RioLearn, that is proprietary and built to meet the needs of today’s students. It hosts online student services including tutoring, advising, registration, etc. The learning platform also includes a degree map and some predictive analytics built in to keep students on track.  Students have over 130 certificate and degree programs and more than 600 courses to choose from that start almost every Monday of the year. Tuition is affordable at $85 per credit hour for in-county residents.

Now, I realize that not every higher education institution is a college like Rio that has been working at improving the online modality since 1995. A lot, however, can be learned from colleges and universities who were early online pioneers. They have proven that the real power in online education is extending it as a critical option for students to complete their certificates and degrees partially or wholly online, and in many forms. Let me explain. At Rio, when I was president, approximately 100 students annually completed an associate degree before graduating from high school in early college programs with some of the required courses taken online because they were not available at the high school, filling a critical gap for these students. Online education is also redefining what transfer students mean in higher education—over 7,200 students annually at Rio, in many instances, transfer 12 credits or more to Arizona’s public universities. Many of these students have never set foot on a Rio campus and “bank and transfer” lower division credits seamlessly while at their university. Workplace partnerships are offered with employers that hire shift-workers who need the flexibility to pursue their studies online to complete a retail management certificate or degree and with the regional insurance industry with online options available for students to complete a certificate or degree in insurance studies where there are first-time jobs or promotional opportunities waiting for them upon completion. Rio is the community college of the Air Force provider at Luke Air Force base located in Glendale, Arizona, where airmen can pursue their studies in person and online, which is especially important when they can be quickly deployed around the world. 

I could go on with testimonials about the power of online at Rio: how it started with a few courses to give students being served at a distance more flexibility and accessibility, to the many faceted approach and benefits that a well-developed online program can offer students to substitute an in-person experience or supplement it while at a university, high school, in the military or the workplace.  

The opportunities are endless, especially in a Netflix-like subscription market where the next generation of distance learning may lie. Can you imagine students taking courses on demand in the not too distant future through their digital screens and having a subscription to take courses from several regionally accredited institutions of higher learning that agree to accept course credits between them? And in which students can select one provider from which to receive a degree/certificate? That is likely the next generation of distance learning, but today we should fully invest in making the power of online education come alive in many more colleges and universities across America (aka the “Sleeping Giant”).  Seize the moment! Let’s not waste this opportunity to do better by today’s students by making quality and accessible online education more widely available to them, and in many forms.