Unconventional Methods, Nontraditional Students: Building a Community of Learners in an Online Program

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

In light of the demonstrated need for online programs to integrate relational elements within their structures, an online doctoral program has adopted three major innovative strategies to support online learners. In this session, program administrators will share these strategies and provide an immersive opportunity for attendees to use the social networking software utilized by the program.


Associate Director of Online Education and PhD student within the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture at Texas A&M University. An educator, curriculum specialist, administrator and program specialist with ten years of experience in education.

Extended Abstract

Statistics show that online learning is clearly poised to be a major part of the landscape of higher education for the foreseeable future (Allen & Seaman, 2017; Legon & Garrett, 2017).  In the United States, 31.6% of students now take at least one distance education course, but perhaps the most remarkable figure is that the number of students studying on a campus has dropped by over one million between 2012 and 2016 academic years (Legon & Garrett, 2017). Although the advantages of offering online programs has been well documented (Burns, 2013; Xu & Jaggers, 2013) it is not always clear whether these programs effectively engage students and whether student experiences in these programs are comparable to those of their face-to-face counterparts. Lasater et al. (2016) point out that there are conflicting reports regarding the effectiveness of online programs, with some studies such as those by the US Department of Education (2010) suggesting that they perform quite well whereas others indicate a significant gap in quality between online and face-to-face programs. Additionally, students in online programs experience issues that are unique to the structure of such programs including experiencing a sense of isolation as well as limited opportunities to interact with their instructors and to get to know their peers. For example, Gardner and Gopaul (2012) found that professional doctoral students often struggled to balance the demands of full-time employment and family with graduate school. Additionally, their part time status as doctoral students led to further struggles with a sense of isolation and non-belonging with the programs in which they were affiliated. Interestingly however many students choose to continue in these programs despite their drawbacks, given the advantages of access and convenience that they afford. In this presentation the authors will describe the strategies they have implemented in order to raise program quality as well as build a sense of community among the approximately 100 students enrolled in an online professional doctoral program in a large public university in the United States. The coursework for the program consists of 64 credit hours, including 13 hours of work towards the dissertation equivalent Record of Study; in the last two years of the program, when students typically begin work on their Records of Study, cohorts are sub-divided into small thematic groups, consisting of an advisor and three to four students. The foci of these groups varies from year to year, based on the interests of the students enrolled.

The program described in this presentation is not unique in being delivered completely online: driven by demand, many programs choose to offer professional doctorates in either completely online or hybrid formats, to meet the needs of their students who typically are mid-career individuals with demanding full-time jobs, families and many other professional commitments. In addition, many of these programs are structured to allow students to pursue their doctorates as part-time students. The combination of an online delivery system and support for part-time enrolment enables many non-traditional students from across the globe to undertake the challenging task of pursuing a doctoral degree. However, this also creates a unique set of challenges and requirements for such programs, foremost of which is the need to maintain quality. Further, the context of online education has often been perceived as a barrier to achieving a sense of community amongst learners in asynchronous learning environments. As such, one of the paramount considerations for instructors and designers of online programs is the necessity of integrating relational elements within their structures.

In light of the above the program has adopted three major strategies to support their online learners, namely supplementing online instruction with carefully designed face-to-face meetings that promote both quality as well as community, the regular use of videoconferencing to deliver advising as well as program updates and the use of social networking software, specifically designed to build a sense of community and to facilitate the easy integration of current content in online courses.

  1. The structured face-to-face activities include:
    1. All students are required to attend a mandatory face to face orientation before they begin their program. The structure of the day long orientation includes time for newly admitted peers to network with one another as well as with program faculty. Specifically the students are given time to meet with established students, without any faculty members present, in order to build a sense of connection with the program.
    2. A consistent challenge throughout has been scaffolding graduates to write in a manner that not only satisfies the demands of an academic context but also speaks convincingly to practitioners. Writing is a critical skill for students in professional doctorates as it is the primary vehicle of articulation for students to positively impact their local environments, yet it also presents as a gatekeeper as inadequate or poorly constructed writing can both keep students from effecting change in their communities and making academic progress (San Miguel & Nelson, 2007). In response to this concern, the program now requires all students to write a “spontaneous” timed essay during the welcome orientation, in the form of a reaction to a professional journal article. Essays are submitted in the form of an assignment in one of the initial courses all students take; however, the essays were not graded. Trained writing peer mentors read and critiqued each essay using the WRITE rubric (Hodges et al. 2018), a rubric developed by program faculty for the purpose of assessing writing. The rubric assesses writing on five criteria, namely writing purpose, grounding in discipline, organization, evidence and/or support, synthesis and presentation of writing. Each essay is then assessed by two peer mentors and detailed feedback provided to each writer. The writers are then required to rewrite their essays incorporating the feedback given. Essays are graded on the basis of how well feedback was incorporated. Individual writing conferences are also offered to all students. Further, the introductory course provides monthly writing tips and additional resources. As a result, the program has seen a rise in the quality of writing being done in the program.
    3. Program administrators developed a study abroad program for students in the Ed.D program. On the trip students were given opportunities to not only enroll in required coursework but also to participate in an intensive writing retreat, during which they shared, edited and received feedback on their writing from peers as well as program faculty and staff. Further, students worked with their advisor to construct individualized advising plans for completion of doctoral coursework and Records of Study.
  2. Through experience the administrators of the program have come to realize the need for as well as the benefits of holding regular videoconferences with program students. Therefore they purchased Adobe Connect in order to supplement existing video conferencing software such as Blackboard Collaborate, given the need to efficiently communicate with groups of 20-25 students at a time. Video conferences are now routinely used to carry out the following activities in the program:
    1. Mandatory individual sessions are conducted throughout the year with all students, ensuring that each student has a clear picture of what they need to accomplish that year.
    2. Each cohort has regularly scheduled meetings with program administrators in order to receive program updates (such as how to arrange for professional internships or the acquisition of new technologies that are being implemented in the program).
    3. Group video conferences have been arranged in order for students to complete their applications to pursue human subjects research, given that IRB applications tend to be very complex.
    4. Students routinely schedule video conferences with their doctoral advisers to seek feedback on their Records of Study.
  3. Program administrators recently purchased access to a social learning network tool known as YellowDig, which is specifically designed to encourage organic, authentic discussions within a restrictive learning management system. Faculty, students, instructional designers, and student advisors have all been trained on how to use the program and it has been integrated into multiple courses across the program. Community boards have also been created, to allow students to share content across classes, cohorts and programs. Program administrators believe this will provide a low-stakes, high engagement platform with which to communicate to peers from different cohorts, program faculty, and staff. Very initial observations include an increase in student frequency of engagement and quality of posts on the platform.

At the beginning of the Educate and Reflect session, presenters will ask all attendees to scan a QR code. The QR code will take attendees to a screen where email addresses will be entered. For the next thirty minutes, presenters will share highlighted techniques as outlined previously which work to build a community of learners within an online doctorate program. After sharing these in-person and virtual techniques, presenters will use the five minutes of individual reflection to automatically email individualized ‘role cards’ to participating audience members. These ‘role cards’ will include: a description of a hypothetical online learner or instructor,  specific perspective this person has about a topic, a website link for YellowDig, and a username/password for YellowDig. As soon as attendees have received their virtual ‘role card’, they are then invited to participate in the online learning platform.

For the remaining ten minutes, the audience will engage on a specific online learning topic as their respective ‘role card’ individual in YellowDig. Both ‘instructors’ and ‘students’ will navigate the user friendly, online platform in an immersive and live setting with presenters on call to answer questions or provide technological support. Attendees will be encouraged to post questions within the YellowDig platform, and one presenter will be live answering these questions from an iPad while circulating the room. A variety of strategies for engaging in YellowDig will be previously created to include: a student poll, a post requiring the use of hashtags, and a post requiring a photo upload. Attendees can engage using any device they bring to the session.


















Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2017). Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017. Babson, MA: Babson Survey Research Group.

Burns, B. A. (2013). Students’ perceptions of online courses in a graduate adolescence education program. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9 (1), 13-25.

Gardner, S. K., & Gopaul, B. (2012). The part-time doctoral student experience. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 7(12), 63-78.

Hodges, T.S., Wright, K.L., Wind, S.A., Matthews, S.D., *Zimmer, W.K., & McTigue, E.M. (Submitted
            August, 2018). Developing and validating the writing rubric to inform teacher educators 
            (WRITE). Assessing Writing.

Lasater, K., Bengtson, E., & Murphy-Lee, M. (2016). An Online CPED Educational Leadership Program: Student Perspectives on Its Value and Influence on Professional Practice. Impacting Education: Journal on Transforming Professional Practice, 1(1).

Legon, R. & Garrett, R. (2017). The changing landscape of online education (CHLOE). Annapolis, MD: Quality Matters and Eduventures.

San Miguel, C., and C. Nelson. 2007. Key Writing Challenges of Practice-Based Doctorates. Journal of    English for Academic Purposes, 6, 71–86.

U.S. Department of Education (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies.

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2013). The impact of online learning on students’ course outcomes:        Evidence from a large community and technical college system. Economics of Education Review, 37, 46-57.