Program in Course Redesign

Rio Salado College

The Traditional Course

Rio Salado College, one of the 10 community colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District, has been delivering distance education for the last 20 years and has offered online education since 1995. Currently, 80% of its general-education courses are delivered via distance. Rio begins 90% of its distance-learning courses 26 times a year. This means that students never have to wait more than two weeks to start a class. In addition, although the distance classes are advertised as being 14 weeks in length, students may accelerate or decelerate (most classes) as needed.

Rio Salado College initially planned to redesign certain aspects of Introductory Algebra, the prerequisite course for students who need to complete College Algebra. This course is third on the Maricopa District's list of top-25 enrollment courses, with a district-wide enrollment of about 955 students per semester in both on-site and distance formats. Most of the colleges use the model of one instructor with 35 students to teach this course. Instructors deliver content, grade assignments, evaluate students’ progress and overall success, and assign final grades. Classes normally run 14 weeks and meet three times a week.

Before the redesign, the college was in its third year of using the interactive CD-ROM technology developed by Academic Systems to deliver its pre-algebra and college algebra courses via the Internet. From this initial experience, the following observations were made:

  • The software presents the content so well that instructors do not need to spend time delivering content.
  • Retention of students and course completion are concerns. Although the Internet classes showed a modest retention increase of about 2% over the print/mixed-media format of distance delivery, the overall retention rate is only 59%.
  • The majority of the instructors’ time is spent troubleshooting noncontent technology problems (e.g., navigation within the lessons), guiding students’ movement through the material (e.g., when to take tests), and advising students (e.g., whether to withdraw) rather than assisting with learning.
  • The delivery model takes the instructional aspects of a traditional classroom and merely transfers them to an online environment by using technology to deliver content.

These observations identified the specific course-delivery aspects to be considered in the overall course redesign. Thus, the initial intent of the course redesign was to take advantage of the capabilities of the Academic Systems software and make more cost-effective use of instructors’ time rather than simply "bolting" the interactive CD-ROM technology onto a traditional distance-delivery design of one course with 35 students. Thus, the redesigned course would include the use of Academic Systems software to teach one section of Introductory Algebra to 100 students.

Rio also hopes to increase the retention rate (the number of students who complete the course with a grade of A, B, C, D, or F) by 20% from its level of 59% in the traditional course. Along with increased retention, Rio wants to maintain or increase the number of students who complete the course with a grade of C or better.

The Redesigned Courses

Although Rio's initial plan was to increase the number of students taking Introductory Algebra from 35 in a section to 100, a significant change to this plan was made in the first term of the project. Because the software is both flexible and comprehensive and because Rio Salado knew that there would not be100 students registering for this one course during the relatively small time block of two to four weeks, the college implemented a model in which the instructor concurrently teaches 100 students enrolled in any of four courses: Introductory Algebra, Mathematical Concepts/Applications, Intermediate Algebra, and College Algebra–Functions.

The redesign will add a course assistant to troubleshoot technology questions, monitor students’ progress using Academic Systems' built-in course-management system, and alert the instructor to students’ difficulties with the material. If the course assistant identifies a student who appears to be working out of order or falling behind schedule, he/she will immediately contact the instructor. The assistant will telephone or e-mail students who are working out of sequence, have moved on to lessons without completing prerequisites, have not been online for more than seven days, or have not had correspondence within the last 14 days. (Although the college's technology-support helpdesk system was to be modified to support course assistant-instructor-student communication, an entirely different database was set up for this purpose). As a result of these additions, instructors will be able to focus on creating a successful start for students and providing academic help when needed.

Enrollment will determine the distribution of students among the four courses; therefore, faculty will work with whatever combination/distribution is needed at any particular time. This arrangement should provide flexibility for the institution and a high likelihood that there will be room for students in the courses they need.

The keys to the redesign are the strength of the software (which Rio Salado students have overwhelmingly found to be effective), the effectiveness of the course assistant model, and the clear communication channels between instructors, students, and the course assistants. Because of these combined advantages, the instructors will be able to expand the availability of math expertise to many more students in multiple courses taught concurrently.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 14-week term
  • Distance-learning format
  • Term start dates every two weeks
  • 35 students in each course section
  • One instructor teaches each course by working with prepared course material, diagnosing students’ skills and knowledge, interacting with students, and monitoring students’ progress.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 14-week term
  • Distance-learning format
  • Term start dates every two weeks
  • 100 students in four different but concurrent courses
  • One instructor teaches four courses concurrently. He or she responds to students’ questions about mathematical material, monitors students’ learning progress, intervening as needed, and maintains proactive communication with students. In addition, he or she supervises the course assistant and oversees all aspects of each course.
  • One course assistant monitors students’ progress, intervening when necessary, responds to e-mails forwarded by the instructor, checks the instructor’s notes attached to students’ reports and reacts accordingly, and maintains student records.


In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Build on the capabilities of existing commercial Academic Systems software
  • Allow Rio Salado to offer four different courses at the same time with only one instructor
  • Provide registration flexibility depending on student demand
  • Add a course assistant to help with course management, answer students’ technology questions, and provide other assistance, thus freeing the instructor to deal with students’ learning progress
  • Use a communication routing system so that students, the course assistant, and faculty can communicate easily and clearly with each other
  • Increase support from a variety of places in the college community, ranging from course development and support to the student helpdesk, to offer a systems approach to learning



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