Creating Community Despite Distance: Stories of Innovation and Collaboration from an Online Learning Community

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session Leadership

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Brief Abstract

Would you like to learn how to create an online program with real community? Join our session to learn more about how the Ed.D.-LOC program is committed to community building as a central value proposition of the program. The recruitment and retention of students through innovative teaching strategies and rigorous academic and professional development preparation are buoyed by a program vision and faculty mission to engage all learners in a community in order to foster retention, aid in reciprocal mentoring, support students, and provide a network to foster student success in every stage of our program.

Additional Authors

Dr. Tony L. Talbert is a Professor of Social/Cultural Studies Education and Qualitative Research in the School of Education at Baylor University. Dr. Talbert refers to his field of research and teaching as Education As Democracy which integrates social/cultural, diversity, and democracy education into a focused discipline of qualitative and ethnographic inquiry examining school and community stakeholder empowerment through activist engagement in political, economic, and social issues. Dr. Talbert’s thirty-three (33) years as an educator has included teaching, research and service in public schools, universities, governmental and corporate institutions. Dr. Talbert began his career in education as a public school history and government teacher where he applied his previous training as a stage actor by engaging his students in the exploration of the human story by integrating the students’ own lived experiences with the historic drama and comedy that encompassed the lives of the characters and events being studied. As a high school history/government teacher Dr. Talbert earned a Master of Arts degree in American Studies at Baylor University. While a public school teacher he became a popular invited speaker at several national conferences where he showcased such creative teaching seminars as He Ain’t Crazy Mama He’s My History Teacher and Thinking Thoughts That Need to Be “Thunk”. After seven years as a high school teacher, Dr. Talbert was asked to serve as an Education Specialist with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) where he facilitated professional development opportunities for educators statewide and nationally. After two years with the TEA Dr. Talbert was recruited to serve as the Executive Director of the Sam Houston State University Center for Professional Development where he was provided the opportunity to collaborate with public school and university educators and students in the exploration and application of cutting-edge digital technology integration into curriculum and pedagogy. During this time Dr. Talbert earned his Doctor of Education Degree in Cultural/Social Studies and Qualitative Research at The University of Houston. Upon earning his Ed.D. Dr. Talbert combined his passion for creative teaching with his highly developed skills as a qualitative researcher and began his career in academia with a commitment to fully integrating the scholarship of discovery with the scholarship of teaching. During his twenty-five (25) year career as a university educator, Dr. Talbert has held or holds the position of Professor, Associate Dean, Department Chair, Graduate Program Director, and Assistant Department Chair at such institutions as Sam Houston State University, Mississippi State University, The University of Houston, and since 2002 Baylor University. During his career Dr. Talbert has published over forty-five peer-reviewed books, chapters, and articles, presented more than eighty-five peer-reviewed and invited research presentations, collaboratively obtained in excess of $2.8 million in funded research, served as the chair and methodologist for over one-hundred masters and doctoral theses and dissertations, served as associate editor and editorial review board member for several academic and professional publications, and has been elected to leadership roles for several professional organizations. In 2013 Dr. Talbert decided that it had been far too long since he had been fully immersed in the real world of teaching. Therefore, he submitted an application to Baylor University for a research sabbatical and returned after more than a twenty year absence to the high school classroom where he taught World history to one-hundred and sixty-six tenth grade students. His experiences have been captured in both academic journal and popular press articles and will be the subject of a book in the future. Most recently Dr. Talbert was named as the recipient of the 2014 McGraw-Hill Distinguished Scholar Award for his contributions to qualitative research in the field of education. Dr. Talbert is pleased to discuss and offer consulting services in qualitative research design and analysis; social/cultural studies education (e.g., democratic education, multicultural-diversity education, peace education), and, public education policy and practice. Dr. Talbert can be reached via email at and/or

Extended Abstract

According to a recent report citing enrollment in graduate programs, online graduate programs dominated the virtual program landscape in 2019 (Schaffhauser, 2020).  Due to rising numbers of programs offering online degree options, it is imperative for practitioners and scholars to examine the needs of students in virtual classroom environments that foster success at all levels as they matriculate and grow as scholars. Research suggests that “students in distance learning programs may be more likely to experience isolation and alienation from the institution because of their physical separation from the school and its services and from other students” (Rovai & Wightin, 2005, p. 97).  As such, it is critical to recognize the importance of building a community among these virtual learners and then act on ways to incorporate strategies to help them feel as if they belong to a tight-knit community, regardless of their proximity to each other or the brick and mortar campus.  


Our program is committed to community building as a central value proposition. The recruitment and retention of students through innovative and rigorous academic and professional development preparation is buoyed by our program vision and faculty mission to engage all learners in a community of reciprocal mentoring and accountability. While we have high expectations for all of our students, we provide support for them throughout their journey towards degree attainment - both academic support and social/emotional support to help them feel as if they are a part of our greater university community.


Our planning team for our degree program prioritizes building community among our students. This includes helping students connect with others within their cohort, as well as others in other cohorts enrolled in the program. Our intentionality has produced a myriad of positive outcomes: students truly feel they are a part of our university even though they reside many thousands of miles from campus;  students have developed meaningful relationships with those in their cohort, and students have connected with other students outside of their cohort as they delve into their classes and work on their capstone experience known as the Problem of Practice (PoP). 


One of the primary ways that we initially build community among our students, as well as make them feel a part of the campus, is through our Immersion experience and the assignment of Faculty Advisors who follow the students throughout the program. On two different occasions during the trajectory of their degree, our EdD students come to campus for two days (Friday-Saturday) to experience campus, interact with their cohort, faculty and other campus leaders, and engage in collegial discussions to further develop their academic experience and Problem of Practice capstone experience.  During this time students are engaged in both academic and social experiences. Through sharing meals, engaging in team-building activities, hearing from university leaders, touring the campus, and more, the students connect in-person with their classmates who they have previously only met online. 


Faculty Advisors are assigned to each cohort and follow them throughout their doctoral program. These faculty teach the Problem of Practice and capstone courses. Faculty Advisors plan periodic meetings during the entire program to support EdD students’ overall development of the PoP. While in their PoP groups, students are assigned Peer Working Groups. Students in each of these groups collaborate and communicate with other students in their cohort who have similar topics. Students develop a basic understanding of their classmates’ topics and often share materials that they find relevant to their classmates’ research topic! Through these Peer Working Groups, students engage in both self-reflection and peer reflection.


In addition to the Immersion experience and assignment of specific Faculty Advisors, we strive to create a sense of community and belonging through multiple other avenues such as mailouts, giveaways, pop-ups, and social media engagement. Being a part of the larger university community is important to our students. So, one of the first things we do when students begin our program is to mail them a welcome package with university swag! The students love receiving the merchandise and being able to represent their university by wearing their university t-shirt, displaying the bumper sticker, and drinking from their coffee cup! They appreciate the personal outreach of our staff, which also includes a  congratulatory note after completion of their first semester (including another t-shirt), birthday cards, and other personal notes of support and encouragement. 


Our program also actively uses social media to engage our students. When students post on social media about our program or a goal they have achieved, we take note of these and respond by sending stickers, coffee cups, and other small tokens of support. We also engage students in responding to current situations. During the recent pandemic, students were asked to respond to the question, “What are you thankful for?” Students who responded were entered into a drawing for a gift.  Another way we use social media is through Student Spotlights and Student Shout Outs where we feature students’ accomplishments in our program, as well as in their careers. These recognitions help build community across cohorts as our students get to know others in the program in a more personal way. Additionally, we have multiple opportunities for students to engage virtually with the faculty and staff, as well as other students in the program outside of class by hosting a variety of helpful webinars on topics such as the admissions/application process, effective writing strategies, and research assistance. We also host other virtual social activities such as Dr. Pepper Hour, a university tradition.


Yet another way we are intentionally building community in our online program is by working alongside students to help them present their scholarly work at conferences and through publications with classmates, as well as professors. We co-edit with students to present manuscripts for publications as well as support them in presenting their work at conferences. We assist students with the submissions, travel planning (travel awards are often available), and the overall experience of sharing their work on a national stage. 


Not only do we intentionally build community with our current students, we actively design ways to recruit new students to join our program. One way we purposefully do this is through Pop-ups. Through pop-ups, our team shows up in areas where we have multiple students. We take time to visit with the students in person, treat them to coffee and snacks, and encourage them to bring a friend who might be interested in learning more, too. Activities such as this one help spread the word about our program while building the community from within. 


Our program is designed for our students to engage in the learning process through two primary vehicles- asynchronous and synchronous. Each week students engage in scholarly work through asynchronous assignments such as reading, reflecting, synthesizing, and evaluating. Then, during live class sessions, students are able to collaborate with their instructor and classmates to delve deeper into course topics by collaborating, communicating, and critically thinking through various modes of creativity. Students from all across the country are grouped purposefully in small breakout rooms during class to share personal leadership stories and perspectives, as well as learn from others, both within and across professional fields of work. 


Networks of support and foundations that build upon community are two tenets that are highly valued in our program. We take great strides through the many examples listed above to ensure our students are not only positioned for success in our program, but also feel appreciated, valued, and heard through the myriad of community building strategies that we employ. The heart of our program is focused not only on high academic standards and rigor, but also the lives of our students and how they work together within our program to build a community of scholars with real hopes and dreams on their quest to attain their terminal degrees.


Plan of interactivity

This session will involve a number of interactive elements where participants will work directly with program documents, watch videos of program practices, and hear from students and faculty involved in all aspects of our online program. Participants will have the opportunity to not only learn about our program but also to consider how to apply these ideas to their own programs.

Participants will: 

  • Learn about student support structures that foster student success

  • Learn about our success with Immersion experiences

  • View specific examples of our practices through videos, photos and lesson plans  

  • View student comments about their feelings of inclusivity

  • Brainstorm ways they can build community within their own programs

  • Discuss the importance of community building with other participants/programs

  • Create a list of strategies that can be applied to their own academic setting


Attendees will learn about: 

  1. The cohort model and how it is used to create support throughout the program. 

  2. The role that faculty advisors play in supporting student success.

  3. Ways to champion student success through a variety of strategies, both across and within programs.

  4. Ways to develop community and in an online program. 

  5. Specific strategies used to foster student success and assist with retention rates.



Paul, R., and Elder, L. “Critical Thinking: The Nature of Critical and Creative Thought.” 

      Journal of Development Education 30.2 (2006).: 34-35. Print.

Rovai, A. & Wighting, M. (2005). Feelings of alienation and community among higher 

      education students in a virtual classroom. The Internet and Higher Education, 


Trilling, B. and Fadel, C., 21st Century Skills Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco, 

      CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009, Print.

Schaffhauser, D. (2020, March 25). Enrollment in Online Progams Flattening for Now. Campus Technology.       online-programs-flattening-out-for-now.aspx