2022 journal article
What Students Value Most: A Qualitative Examination of Learner Experiences in a Fully Online Degree Program
TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD, 124(2), 143–169.
Background: Enrollment in online degree programs has grown rapidly in U.S. higher education institutions, but much of the research on online learning draws from student experiences in a singular online course. Student experiences in fully online programs likely differ from the experience of taking a one-off online class, especially as students become more familiar with online learning after multiple courses. Yet, research examining student experiences in fully online programs remains sparse. Objective: In this exploratory and theory-building study, we examine student experiences after they have taken multiple courses in a fully online degree program. Relying on the perspective of students, our goal is to better understand what elements of fully online learning programs are most valued by learners. Setting: We examine a fully online EdD program in leadership and learning at a private university in the United States. The program includes a series of courses that all include both asynchronous (e.g., readings and lecture videos) and synchronous activities. For synchronous sessions, students log in with their computers every week using teleconferencing software that allows them to interact with the instructor and with classmates in real time. Research Design: We qualitatively analyze student interview data. We employ the How People Learn Framework to guide our analysis and extend our understanding of two of its key learning-environment dimensions: the learner-centered and community-centered dimensions. We purposively sampled 31 students for the semistructured interviews. To analyze interview transcripts, we used a grounded theory approach that began with line-by-line codes that we aggregated into categorical tags that were used to support the emergent themes. Results: We find that students value four learner-centered program characteristics (diversity, authenticity, safety, and individuality) and five community-centered program structures (facilitating peer-to-peer interactions, establishing norms and expectations, differentiating for learning preferences, explaining the strengths and limitations of technology, and supporting student-driven initiatives). Conclusion: We discuss cognitive tensions in students’ self-reported perceptions of their experiences and highlight the need for future research to examine how online learning programs can be better structured to support students in diverse and inclusive learning communities.