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Online Clinical Dental Assisting Program
Rio Salado College, AZ

Today’s healthcare industry faces substantial shortages of highly qualified workers in many critical areas. In Arizona, one such ongoing need has been for highly trained clinical dental assistants. Simultaneously, this career path has historically lacked a corresponding program of study within higher education to provide students with affordable, convenient, and flexible coursework. Recognizing the discrepancy, and facing a workforce shortage, the Arizona State Dental Association (AZDA) and Rio Salado College (AZ) partnered to create a viable solution to meet the needs of both the dental community and students. The result of this collaborative effort is the Online Clinical Dental Assisting Program, one of the nation’s first dental assisting certificate programs to combine e-learning courses with hands-on training under the supervision of practicing dentists. The program is based on a three-tier learning process that includes fully distance education curriculum, on-site clinical practicum experience, and an internship in a dental practice. The three tiers ensure quality of education, program affordability, and access to education – even from remote and rural sites.

Program Description

The online courses allow anytime, anyplace learning at a pace convenient for individual students, giving them tremendous flexibility. The technical component of the online courses is reinforced through an onsite practicum supervised by participating dentists. Subsequently, each student participates in an internship with a practicing dentist, established through a network of supporting professionals.

Distinctive distance learning lab kits, containing approximately 500 different tools and components, enhance learning experiences and offer students the opportunity to test their skills in home-based lab experiments. Development of these distance clinical labs is another major component of the program’s success. Using the home lab kit, a dental assistant student develops many clinical skills, from processing instruments, mixing cements, and fabricating bleaching trays to working in the patient’s mouth. The creation of the distance clinical labs involved a great deal of research and testing from development to storage. Materials were tested to simulate and replace hazardous materials that could not be shipped via the U.S. Postal Service. In addition, various typodonts (realistic working models of teeth and gums) were researched prior to selecting the one that was best suited to instructional needs. To create each kit, unit dosing formulas for simulates and supplies had to be established and refined to keep labor costs to a minimum. Production and warehousing of the kits required allocation of space, special shelving and containers, and development of an inventory and labeling system. Packaging, inventory lists, and labeling were refined to assure protection of contents during shipping and to help students identify the items. Finally, a five-hour instructional video series was produced that clearly demonstrated for the student how to perform each of the home-based lab experiments required for the program.

The nine required online didactic courses comprise 18 credit hours of instruction to be completed prior to students’ enrolling in the practicum (on-site clinical work). The courses focus on developing didactic knowledge and clinical skills that prepare students for a variety of hands-on learning experiences during the practicum. The instructional series begins with introductory and orientation courses, and then branches toward specialty topics of Infection Control and Hazard Communication, Dental Anatomy and Pathology, and Dental Radiographic Imaging.

Maintaining High Touch in a High-Tech Program

Completion of the online coursework is convenient, flexible, and easily accomplished from the comfort of home, no matter the distance. Students have ready online access to all the necessary support services within the college, starting with registration and continuing with academic advising, financial aid, library services, tutoring, and computer helpdesk support. These resources are as close as the computer or phone, and the 800 number gives easy and affordable access for all students.

The curriculum includes 15 instructional videos that are distributed over nine of the courses. The videos, as well as lab vibrators and radiographs, are checked out and distributed through online library services.

Students complete their assignments online and return finished lab projects by mail. The internal mail and courier system at Rio Salado College gives the students a seamless access point regardless of instructor location. Assignments are sorted and distributed by instructor and then delivered by Rio courier to faculty addresses for that particular course.

Prior to internship, a 36-hour in-person lab practicum is conducted in a professional dental clinic with a low student-to-faculty ratio (six-to-one) allowing for plenty of personal attention. During the well-orchestrated sessions of the practicum, students perform procedures on patients, sit chair-side with dentists, operate dental equipment, and take X-rays of patients. The goals are to prepare the students for successful completion of state exams and to fully prepare the student to perform as a valuable member of the dental team during the internship course.

The internship portion of the course is completed with a participating licensed dentist. The internship brings additional value to the students and gives them the opportunity to make the transition to a dental assisting career. To date, a majority of the students attain full-time employment in a dental office subsequent to the completion of their internship.


Since its inception in March 2001, 469 students have enrolled in the Online Clinical Dental Assisting Program. There are no entry requirements or prerequisites for admission into the program other than a high school degree or GED. Nonetheless, the majority of students entering the program have been successful. Remarkably, 100 percent of the students completing the online didactic coursework have been successful in completing the practicum and are able to move on to a rewarding internship experience. Dentists sponsoring these internships have been extremely satisfied with the skill level and expertise of students in the program.

Rio Salado’s Online Clinical Dental Assisting program is affordable ($135 per credit hour, plus lab fees), and offers students the opportunity to fast track their professional goals. Students are able to complete the didactic portion of the program and begin their on-site clinical practicum in approximately nine months.

What began as a local initiative has grown into a multi-state workforce shortage solution through additional dental association partnerships. The initial success of this program in Arizona has provided Rio Salado with the credibility and momentum to expand its potential to assist dental associations in Washington State, Oregon, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. These dental associations all endorse this online program for students in their home states.

National Recognition

In 1998, Rio Salado College, the Arizona Dental Association, and Delta Dental Insurance collaborated to create the $1.2 million Rio Salado College School of Dental Hygiene facility.

In 1999, the program received a national Best Practice Award from the U.S. Departments of Labor, Commerce, and Education; the Small Business Institute, and the National Institute for Literacy.

In 2000, Rio Salado College and the AZ Dental Association again collaborated to create the Online Dental Assisting Program. By 2002, the Rio Salado Online Dental Assisting Program received the 2002 National Golden Apple Award from the American Dental Association in the Member-Related Services/Benefits category – the first time the award was presented as the result of a college partnership. Subsequently, in 2003, NCIA awarded the Rio Salado Online Clinical Dental Assisting Program the Exemplary Practices Award in the Workforce Development Category.

For more information on The Online Dental Assisting Program at Rio Salado College, contact Dr. Jim Van Dyke or Director Kelly Michelson, or visit the website to review online sample lessons.

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