Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona, serves more than 54,000 students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. While many of Rio’s students are full-time college students working toward a two- or four-year degree, many other groups of students are only enrolled in individual classes: learners in workforce training programs, high school students, active-duty military, lifelong learners, and incarcerated learners.
“There isn’t a typical Rio student,” says Michael Medlock, associate dean for instructional design and technology at Rio Salado. “In fact, we laugh about it here, because the typical Rio student is atypical.”
Rio Salado is able to offer high-quality, interactive online courses that are effective for its diverse student body because of the college’s commitment to instructional design. Instructional designers are educational experts who make sure education is being delivered in an effective way. They map the intended course outcomes to individual learning objectives using learning science to create practice activities, and assessments aligned with student needs. Medlock heads a department of seven instructional designers, each of whom is assigned to a few of Rio’s 20 faculty chairs.
Related reading: Instructional Design and Online Education: Beyond Digitizing Content
Unique challenges of a diverse student body
Non-traditional students often have challenges their peers don’t face. They may be raising families or working full-time, for example. They may be less prepared for college-level work. First-generation students from low-income households have two of the risk factors that contribute to the degree attainment gap. According to a 2015 report by The Education Trust, low-income students nationally are 14 percent less likely to attain a degree than their wealthier peers.
To help those students graduate with their intended degree, colleges and universities must find ways to meet those learners where they are. Rio Salado is finding that to do this effectively, they can offer online courses that engage students by using a platform that collects data about the students’ learning and personalizes the experience as they progress through a course.
Teaming instructional designers with faculty
Rio Salado’s instructional design staff works closely with faculty to create engaging courses. When it comes time to design a course, a designer is joined by a faculty chair and a subject matter; they are then guided in part by a template from the Quality Matters standards and by Rio Salado’s internal guidelines.
Those internal guidelines are called the Four Keys to Instruction: connecting learning, focusing learning, summarizing learning, and assessing learning. Depending on the complexity of the course, the design process can take between one and eight months.
Instructional designers also work with instructors and faculty chairs to fix problems while a course is running. If a chair hears from the adjuncts that students are doing poorly on one end-of-module assessment, for example, the designer is called in.
“We can jump into the item analysis, even if it’s a subjective assignment, because of the way we’ve built our rubrics,” says Medlock. “It’s pretty easy once you start to scrutinize the issue. Is it an assessment issue? Or is it really a content issue? In most cases, if we find an obvious assessment issue, we’ll just make the fix. If it’s a content issue, then we’ll make the adjustment we think is best — but we’ll watch it closely.”
Medlock and his team are also committed to creating accessible courses for all students, a vital step in reaching students with disabilities. Importantly, those efforts have actually gone beyond benefiting only students who must use screen readers or need transcripts of video lessons.
“We have anecdotal feedback from time to time about students who don’t have those accessibility needs still benefiting from the transcripts we put with videos,” says Medlock. “It never dawned on me that somebody would want to print out the transcripts. We just try in general to think, ‘OK, what’s going to make it easier to be a student in this lesson?’ And that’s the approach in general we’ve taken.”
Using strategies of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — a framework grounded in learning science that maintains flexible learning environments to meet individual students’ learning differences — certainly helps students with specific learning disabilities. But at the same time, as Medlock has discovered, UDL also helps all students.
Scaffolding for students from all walks of life
The diversity of the student body poses a challenge for Medlock and his team of designers. Learners come to Rio with a wide range of prior knowledge, and that can be difficult to design for.
“What they bring to a particular course as far as prior knowledge is all over the place, so in our module template, we include an introduction to each lesson,” says Medlock. That introduction attempts to bring all learners to a common level of knowledge while activating relevant prior knowledge for the students who have it.
“We try to organize the content for a student in a way that allows for natural scaffolding within a lesson,” says Medlock. “Even throughout a course, we are purposeful in looking at what foundational knowledge a student should get before moving on to the next concept.”
While the introduction to a lesson attempts to set up a foundation of knowledge about the content, the introduction to a course covers a wider range of topics — often recalling information the students learned in Rio Salado’s student orientation.
“We have many courses that simply start with an overview of good study skills,” says Medlock. “It’ll remind students of planning for learning; how much time they should expect to spend this week for a particular lesson, what the assessment is going to be like this week, and then contextualize that a bit.”
For example, if the course is a chemistry course, the introduction might remind students to have their lab kit on hand.
While the instructional design team doesn’t work directly with student services, these course introductions are a part of Rio Salado’s effort to engage students in behaviors that allow students to thrive: early registration, for example, as well as planning ahead, frequent contact from an instructor, and handing in work on time.
“We want to move students to early actions that we know are successful,” says Medlock. “If we could just get them to complete their first set of assignments on time, that really is a head start for the most part toward being successful in the end.”
Course introductions that introduce good study behaviors within the context of a specific lesson do more than just get students ready to learn — they also personalize a lesson.
Related reading: Using Online Courseware to Create A Personalized Learning Experience
Reaching a diverse student body with personalization
Rio Salado runs more than 700 online courses at a time. For the sake of consistent data, those online courses are designed based on a template. An outsider might get the idea that such courses are “canned,” but that could not be farther from the truth.
“I hate that term,” says Medlock. “That might exist somewhere, but we are always trying to find a way to take our [course] model as far from that idea of a ‘canned course’ as possible.”
Because many of Rio Salado’s online courses are designed to be consistent, personalization is an important way to make courses more relevant to students. In order to allow the adjuncts to really put their mark on the courses they teach, Rio Salado gives instructors the opportunity to create lesson preview pages.
Such pages appear before each module. The instructor can add context or background for the lesson in the form of a YouTube video or links to relevant information. While many of these preview pages are created before a course runs, an instructor can also edit the preview pages during the course. For example, if a current event impacts a lesson, the instructor can record a lecture about that news and post it to the relevant lesson preview page.
“It’s a little bit of personalization; a hook for the student to jump into the learning for that session,” says Medlock.
Rio’s use of Acrobatiq is key to this personalization. In addition to enabling instructors to make such dynamic modifications to their lessons, the adaptive learning platform responds to each learner’s individual progress through a course, providing more practice to those who need it.
“Even though it’s the same set of competencies, the same set of learning objectives in any given module, the way a student moves through that learning experience is different from other students taking that same course, because of the dynamic nature of the platform,” says Medlock. “That takes it even farther away from that awful ‘canned course’ term.”
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.