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Cordero Holmes said the RioConnect program increased his sense of belonging, a key factor in student success.

Rio Salado College

Cordero Holmes arrived at Rio Salado College in 2018 intent on reinventing himself. Holmes, who earned his associate degree in life sciences last year and hopes to become an addiction counselor, credits a program called RioConnect with helping him achieve his dream of earning a college degree.

He is now working on a second degree, in psychology, at Rio Salado, while juggling responsibilities as a husband, father and worker at a stucco plant alongside his studies—all of which made his college experience as an asynchronous online student sometimes feel lonely. That feeling of isolation changed last year thanks to RioConnect, a partnership between Rio Salado and the ed-tech start-up InScribe, which created a virtual community for Rio Salado students with a goal of increasing their sense of belonging.

“It’s a blessing to be able to attend school whenever you want to, whether it’s 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, [but] you often feel lonely because you feel like it’s just you,” Holmes said. “RioConnect gave us a platform to come together and know that, ‘Hey, we’re not the only one.’”

Sixty-two percent of Rio Salado students attend the Arizona college at least partly online. Holmes said that given this reality, having the RioConnect community—which he described as similar to a Facebook group, where students can post messages and talk about classes—was that much more valuable.

“This was a way for us to come together as a community at Rio Salado College and help one another in regards to mental health, in regards to these different study groups that we were creating … so it was just a great way for Rio Salado students to connect,” Holmes said.

Holmes, who came to Rio Salado after serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery, has thrived at the college. He was its 2020–21 student senator and is the current Arizona Phi Theta Kappa Regional Development Officer, which means he represents Rio Salado and other area institutions on the state level with Phi Theta Kappa, the premier honor society for community colleges. 

Holmes said RioConnect expanded on an earlier student project he and other Phi Theta Kappa students helped design to increase student belonging. He said that project was modest in scope and relied on the existing Rio Salado learning management system and directed extra resources and motivational quotes to Rio Salado students in a couple of classes. Holmes said a Rio Salado official, Janelle Elias, saw their project and decided to “crank it up” and create a much bigger initiative—RioConnect—with partners at CIN and InScribe with whom she was already working. Holmes said his experiences as a new online student made him understand the importance of community.

“I was lonely in the sense that all of it was new to me,” Holmes said, referring to when he first arrived at college from prison. “I felt like I was all by myself, but I was kind of used to that, because when I was incarcerated I did three years in solitary confinement.”

RioConnect was made possible by the College Innovation Network (CIN), which was launched in 2020 by WGU Labs, Western Governors University’s research and development arm. CIN connects colleges and universities with ed-tech leaders and spearheaded the implementation of the RioConnect program. The network published a report Wednesday showing the impact of the RioConnect model on students and how it fostered a sense of belonging among them—and why that matters. The CIN study compared the experiences of more than 200 students who began participating in RioConnect soon after it launched in August 2021 with those who never participated and tracked changes in their reported sense of belonging.

Students who engaged with RioConnect reported greater feelings of belonging and greater peer connectedness than students who never joined, and students who joined the community in the middle of the study reported significant increases in belonging after they began using RioConnect, according to CIN.

During the study period, which ran from last August through late fall, students viewed resources posted in RioConnect 19,048 times; they viewed conversations 142,214 times and replied or reacted to conversations 920 times.

Omid Fotuhi, director of learning and innovation at WGU Labs, said the organization was involved in the project from the incubation phase onward. He said CIN works with a network of 12 higher ed institutions, including Rio Salado, and constantly solicits feedback to determine how institutions can benefit from CIN’s intervention. Discussions with Rio Salado pointed to a need to increase online students’ sense of belonging. CIN found an ed-tech company with a product that would address the problem and offered support services to help faculty adapt to it, Fotuhi said.

“We help to reduce the cost of licensing fees because we offer a consortium rate for the solutions, then we help with implementation,” Fotuhi said. “Then, finally, we put into place the strategies for the study and then we report back to the schools.”

Katy Kappler, founder and CEO of InScribe, the ed-tech company that CIN introduced to Rio Salado, said her company has focused its work on nontraditional students who are learning online while juggling work and family obligations.

Kappler said these students “don’t have the time or, often, the experience to know how to navigate the higher ed space and may not have the opportunities to connect with classmates in the way that traditional students do in the hallways, in the library.”

She said her work with InScribe has been informed by her belief that students’ learning success is greatly enhanced by making connections. Her hope is that the CIN study can become a “playbook that other institutions can look at when they think … about belonging.”

InScribe’s product is an app that uses technology to connect people and enhance student success by increasing sense of belonging.

She said the app “isn’t bound to the classroom itself, so we can work at all stages of the student journey [and] we can integrate with all the different technologies that campus already has.”

The app also has artificial intelligence capabilities, Kappler said, which can be used to monitor the mental health of the community using it.

“We’re looking to see if the emotion of the conversations in the community is getting negative or upset or frustrated,” Kappler said. “If it does, the system can automatically alert somebody [at the host institution] to say, ‘Hey, there seems to be an issue percolating here or a student that maybe needs some direct attention.’”

Nicole Barbaro, the research lead for the CIN project and the author of the new report about it, said her research proved how important a sense of belonging is to students.

“What the RioConnect community gave students was an opportunity to introduce themselves and their story and realize that there’s other students like them,” Barbaro said. “Having this kind of crowdsourced student community [where] students can ask questions, and there’s other students online at the same time to help them and support them, was really, really beneficial for them.”

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