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A calculated risk In 1996, Rio Salado, one of 10 Maricopa Community Colleges, took a calculated risk and began offering courses online—16 to start—just when the Internet was taking off.

Critics at the time challenged the quality of online education and claimed that students wouldn’t adjust well to such a radical change in their learning environment.

​In 2008, investors wanted to buy Rio Salado College, the nation’s largest online public community college headquartered in Tempe, Ariz.

The offer was more than 0 million with plans to convert it into a national, for-profit, online school.

But Maricopa and Rio Salado pushed ahead, determined to create an innovative, non-traditional and nimble approach that is responsive to and supportive of changing student needs. While no one could have predicted the economic environment that students and higher education face today, making the decision to move online proved to be provident for the college and students.Rio Salado extended educational access to students who found traditional college to be out of reach in Arizona, nationwide and around the world.I set my annual gift budget based on the amount of cash-back rewards I've earned throughout the year.If it's been a good spending year, bully for my gift recipients.

Still, there is healthy skepticism about the proliferation of online learning and views still differ about its value.According to surveys by the Pew Research Center and the , less than 30 percent of the public believes that online and classroom courses provide the same educational value. Any way you look at it, online learning is an increasingly vital part of producing the number of qualified graduates needed to meet future workforce demands—when it is done correctly.