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EDUCAUSE Western Regional: Linda Thor, President, Rio Salado College, All Aboard the Digital Express!

All Aboard the Digital Express!
Linda Thor, President, Rio Salado College
2007 EDUCAUSE Western Regional Conference
May 7, 2007

San Francisco, CA


Four distinct generations, from the tech-savvy to the tech-challenged, are enrolled in higher education today. Are we as educational leaders in tune with their wants and needs? In an era where students can text message their registrations, how many bells and whistles should we offer them? How do we manage to track trends? This presentation will explore possibilities and innovative solutions for the digital age.

Session Notes:

Dr. Thor became a college President at the age of 36 and it was the first time she had been on a college campus. She has the distinction of being the only college President to have had a baby while President. She started as a public information officer and said she is still a public information officer but now she is paid more.

She believes she succeeded by designing programs that met her own needs and said there are abundant opportunities to distinguish oneself by meeting un-met student and faculty needs.

She talked about Digital Immigrants versus Digital Natives and said that we should each Google ourselves and our institutions regularly because of a recent article in Wired that said “Google is not a search engine; it’s a reputation management system.”

Technology will never be second nature to Digital Immigrants.

Immigrants use email and listen to their voicemail. 

Digital Natives use IM and if they don’t recognize a phone number they will delete it. 

Natives are online to check out the truthfulness of claims while the speaker is still speaking.

Higher Education serves four generations in the workplace:
  • Mature Generation
  • Baby Boomers
  • Generation X
  • Millenials/Gen Y  - now comprise 25% of the workforce

Dr. Thor said that Matures and Baby Boomers know that they have technology deficiencies and will “never” catch-up. Gen Xs are quite good at technology. But we have the most to learn about and from the Millenials. Some Millenials are our co-workers and have the greatest ability to shape our conversations in this arena.  How can we use the web as an interactive teaching tool? Students express their wants and needs and how they rely on technology for their degrees and live their lives. 

Important questions for which there are no quick and easy answers.

  • what more can we do to reach out to students through technology as efficiently as other segments of society
  • how our students are being shaped by the social software of today
    • My Space and Mark Burnett, of the TV show Apprentice, will be doing political analysis on MySpace.
    • Soon our students will read E-paper textbooks
    • Soon we will talk to our computers in the next 5-7 years.

How are we going to manage all of this change? There are continual changes in hardware and software and its use and change is ever present and it scary/difficult.  

Where we are: The analog train at 250 mph is being passed by digital train is moving at high speed 356 mph. 

  • In 1990 Rio Salado College had one IT person and now it has 50.
  • Who delivers the news? It’s not Dan Rather. It may be digg where the favorite articles are determined by vote and constantly changing and is among top 100 sites visited in the world.
  • You Tube is being used by police departments to capture thieves which is possible because of its viral nature.
  • Explosive impact of MySpace with 91 million unique visitors/month. It’s all about building community with 1 billion page views daily. 230K people sign up a day.  87% of users are over 18. It would be #11 in population size if it was a country. [All in less than 4 years.] Wouldn’t it be great if higher education could recognize an emerging student market and move this quickly to take advantage of it and serve it? 

In noting that the founders of MySpace knew that users wanted a social forum and faster downloads, Dr. Thor asked if, in higher education, do we listen to and understand our students and their needs. Do we appreciate how tech-savvy they are? How can we use technology to tap the untapped markets? Only 56% Hispanics use the Internet, 60% blacks, 70% Anglos (regardless of age).   How can we use these technologies to market to these students? How can we turn this situation around? The technology we use can work against us – like an e-mail blast PR message. We need to explore new social software and other technologies  

She suggested that for starters, we need to reach out to our potential students using social software. Examples she used included Barack Obama’s campaign site which uses a My Space format and clearly says “this campaign is about you.” She also noted ColdStone Creamery’s You Tube video with ice cream characters that have profiles on My Space and said that we are not competing with these folks and we need to talk to our campus marketing units about moving in these directions.

Rio Salado currently has 25K online learners but they are equipped to serve 100K students. In 10 years they have moved to 25 distance education classes to more than 450 unique online courses. Start dates are every 2 weeks. This fall they will move to having 90% of their courses available 365 days a year and will never need to cancel or close classes. Rio Salado does not silo e-learning and technology; it’s within everything they do.

Rio Salado students tend to be working adults in their 20s and older – primarily women with children, who want choice, convenience, flexibility, and access. And there is plenty of competition within a few miles of Rio Salado and because of that, there is plenty of innovation.

Students aren’t loyal to one institution – they just getting the education they want. These are ‘Swirling Students’ who do not feel obliged to start and end at the same institution and they have non-traditional needs and characteristics so we need to work to have new and better ways to serve them.

Quote: Marc Prensky – coined “digital immigrant and digital native’ terms wrote an article for EDUCAUSE entitled “Engage Me or Enrage Me:  What Today’s Learners Demand” which can be found at  It’s not about expensive and fancy graphics, it’s about “ideas.” College age Gen Ys say school is boring after their average 5-10K hours of video games, 10k hours of cell phone, 20K hours of TV, 100K commercials, 250K emails as they were growing up. Because of the media stimuli their brains have actually changed. They can shuffle easily between technology tools.

At Rio Salado they say “tech as a tool,” but students say ‘we look at technology as a foundation – it’s totally integrated into what we do.’ Well-wired multi-taskers are changing campus culture.

Gen Ys “You Tube” as a verb, post their own stuff, don’t read the newspaper, they have few close friends, haven’t handwritten a letter on paper for years, if ever, and like their professors ppts posted online.

Student: When there is a teacher lecturing to you in front of the room it is really boring I need more bells and whistles to keep my attention. Another liked comical clips from You Tube inserted in the class.

Management Consultant – Robert Wendover, Center for Generational Studies (in CO) ( asked: How will you serve the most diverse, wired, impatient, skeptical, demanding, fun-loving generation in US history?

Gen Y is 81 million strong and is bigger than baby boomer generation. By 2012 they could increase the number of college students by 2.1 million. One in 3 is a racial minority; one in 4 has experienced parental divorce. And they expendable funds and go shopping as entertainment, they check out the items at the mall and then go home and buy them online. They see work as fun and earning to spend. They also believe that technology has all the answers.

  • They believe that life is too short not to have fun.
  • They want to interact with media rather than sitting and watching/listening to it.
  • They like to have choice and if they are not offered the right options they will create them.
  • They are conditioned to expect free promotional items
Six criteria for judging their educational experience

(recruitment/enrollment touchpoints)

1)  Is it meaningful? Can I see myself doing it? Does it involve skills I have and want to use?

2)  Balance – does it mesh with my life balance? What will these classes do to my personal life? Will the schedule allow me to maintain my other priorities?

3)  Is it cool? What will my friends say? What will I say to my friends about it?

4)  Does it look like fun? Are the people fun? Or does it look too much like work?

5)  Is it affordable? Can I find a way to pay for it? Can I make a good living when I finish?

6)  Does it provide direction? What do I do to sign-up? What buttons do I push? How fast can I get the information?

We’ve all built fabulous websites but do they do enough to recruit students?  It can be great looking but we need to focus on content. However, we’ve beyond content and now it is about engagement. We need to use interactive learning technologies that entertain as well as teach. We need to use podcasting, blogs, wikis, and even set up our own versions of sites like My Space and You Tube.

RIOLearn was developed with highly customizable detailed feedback, time management features, instant alerts etc. Faculty members are preparing tech savvy students for jobs that do not yet exist. Gen Ys will have held 10-14 jobs before they are 38 years old.

They have full 24X7 online, phone, and in-person support for technology issues, tutoring, and advising. There is IM access to student advisers and they can text message their registrations.

Dr Thor asked: How can we best educate and equip our faculty about emerging technologies to better do their jobs in these circumstances? We don’t have the resources of the corporate world where a group like Capital One issues everyone an iPod for training purposes. Rio Salado has 33 permanent full-time faculty members who oversee more than 1000 adjunct faculty for their 60K learners. (45 K credit students) The Chronicle of Higher Education profiled Rio Salado as “a lean, mean, teaching machine.” Faculty serve as learning facilitators rather than bearers of the world’s knowledge which is the type of hands-on education that Gen Ys value.

In 1996, Rio Salado had a gut sense that e-learning would be important and so they developed a “technology boot camp” for faculty to get their buy-in and paid them to attend.   Rio Salado prides itself on pushing the envelope and hiring people who can be change agents and want to change

In addition, they invest in their full-time faculty by investing in the latest technology tools for them. Recently, just for fun, they asked full-time faculty chairs what new technologies they wanted to have:

  • Nintendo Wii – fun and is played in groups of people so it requires more than sitting on the couch and helps fight stress.
  • Blackberry – for more efficient access to email and other resources.
  • Bookmarking technology developed in and out of courses so busy students can come in and out of where they are in their online courses.
  • Something that would further individualize learning such as being able to select specific modules so they can more quickly test out of certain courses.

Dr Thor said that it is predicted that there will be a 32% increase in the need for postsecondary teachers with doctoral degrees by 2014 – making it the 3rd in the predicted top ten jobs and the largest growing field. She suggested that the conference attendees start working on their doctorates now. There will be a real need for faculty who have new and innovative ideas. Our challenge will be how to equip them to do their work.

She also talked about the Digital divide within Gen Y. There is a strata of “have-nots” we must address. The USA ranks only 15th in broadband penetration and so we are all limited by what we can do in the way of bells and whistles when many students still have dial-up.

Dr Thor hoped that the conference would open up discussions on how we are to market to digital natives and the issues of whether we market to the most wired of our potential students. She cited a CNET study that looked at “influence via social networking. The study found that the most potential was with moderately connected people (11-99 social connections per month) and so we need to package messages creatively so those messages can be forwarded and shared and used in social software. She believes this is a sign that we need to market to both Gen Y and Gen X, esp. as GenXers return to school to complete their education.

In closing she talked about an employment marketing campaign by Xerox, “eXpress Yourself,” that appeals to Gen X and Gen Y

  • Rio Salado is now largest community college with 15% growth per year.
  • They serve residents of Maricopa County in Arizona but are looking to expand as the 3rd largest education provider for the Army.
  • Their new strategic plan involves how to figure out the international education market.
  • The collaboration of the three Arizona state colleges is working but still has problems to be worked out.
  • Course bookmarking is now on the “wishlist” and she feels it would be a good opportunity for someone to work in this space and distinguish themselves.
  • RE: Reaching out to the Hispanic population, they have partnered with Monterrey Tech in Mexico to provide training in the entire Microsoft suite in Spanish. The Rio Salado courses are designed to be totally asynchronous – but a hybrid model works better for Hispanics as this works better culturally with its face-to-face experiences.
  • Can we do this without the class divides (pricing out the middle class out of regular higher education) A typical student has to work and is going into debt and starting a family before s/he completes a degree. We need to offer education that is affordable, convenient, and flexible.
  • Faculty have been fully developed by a team and  the job for the faculty is the interaction with the students. The SLA is that they must grade and return assignments within 3 days and respond to students within 24 hrs. Rio Salado’s retention rate of students is 85-87%.
  • What percentage are vocational students? The first emphasis is on general education and only recently more so on the vocational side.

This presentation was recorded and is available by podcast at



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