Monday, August 13, 2012

RioLearn Showcases College's Culture of Innovation

Earlier this month, a collaboration of program developers, course designers, faculty members, web specialists, and graphic artists launched an upgraded version of Rio Salado College’s online learning management platform, RioLearn.

Not only is the updated design easier for students to navigate, it lays the groundwork for a series of planned improvements. In fact, the RioLearn team is already working on additional features like social media integration to promote a connected college experience for Rio Salado’s 41,000 online students.

According to Rio Salado College Vice President of Information Services Edward Kelty, the recently released version brings significant changes to the user interface including a more current design, streamlined navigation and integrated help screens.

"This time around we’re making a lot of very visible changes," Kelty said. "We're adding better personalization and incorporating more social elements into the system. We’re updating the user interface so it’s smoother and easier to understand, and of course we’re all very excited about the new look."

RioLearn is an LMS platform like Blackboard or Moodle, but in order to support the unique features offered by Rio Salado College, the program had to be custom built from the ground up.

"Ideally we want to build applications only when we can't find something that meets the majority of our needs," Kelty said. "RioLearn exists because no available product would do the job."

In addition to not being able to support Rio Salado's block calendar system and Monday starts, standard LMS platforms are often incompatible with the one-course-many-sections model of course development in place at the college.

"RioLearn allows for a more efficient automated course maintenance system," Kelty said. "When Rio’s faculty and instructional design team create a course, the system then automatically generates the course website and provisions all student and faculty access.”

“In a traditional LMS, typically each teacher has to create and enter their own content and then manually initiate rolling it forward each semester.  RioLearn has completely automated the process of rolling course materials forward from one semester to another,” Kelty said.

Rio Salado College, recognized as a pioneer in distance learning, began offering online courses in 1996. The RioLearn environment was introduced in 2004, and by 2006 the school had converted a majority of its classes to an online format.

“In 1996, there were no web editors. There were no systems. You just had to put it all together yourself," Kelty said. "It was fun and a very exciting time."

"Faculty member, Angela Ambrosia, and I taught the faculty how to write HTML so that they could create our first online classes," Kelty said. “The first 16 to 20 courses were written by hand by our faculty chairs."

The initial release of the RioLearn program was a significant milestone for Kelty and his team.

"I tell people it's like my wedding or birthday," Kelty joked. "The RioLearn version one release date was August 23 of 2004, and I'll never forget it."

"Obviously the process has been refined over the years," Kelty said. "We have a whole team of instructional designers working with the faculty chairs now.  We also have a course production and media teams that produce the content and multimedia objects to increase student learning and  engagement.”

Because innovation is such an essential part of the Rio Salado College culture, RioLearn was developed with an eye on the future.

Built in partnership with Microsoft and Dell, the program is both scalable and adaptable. It has been tested to support as many as 100,000 students and has the agility needed to quickly adjust to new educational products, changing legislative regulations, and advances in technology.