Student Support Networks in Online Doctoral Programs: Exploring Nested Communities

Sharla Berry
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 12  •  2017  •  pp. 033-048
Aim/Purpose: Enrollment in online doctoral programs has grown over the past decade. A sense of community, defined as feelings of closeness within a social group, is vital to retention, but few studies have explored how online doctoral students create community.

Background: In this qualitative case study, I explore how students in one online doctoral program created a learning community.

Methodology: Data for the study was drawn from 60 hours of video footage from six online courses, the message boards from the six courses, and twenty interviews with first and second-year students.

Contribution: Findings from this study indicate that the structure of the social network in an online doctoral program is significantly different from the structure of learning communities in face-to-face programs. In the online program, the doctoral community was more insular, more peer-centered, and less reliant on faculty support than in in-person programs.

Findings: Utilizing a nested communities theoretical framework, I identified four subgroups that informed online doctoral students’ sense of community: cohort, class groups, small peer groups, and study groups. Students interacted frequently with members of each of the aforementioned social groups and drew academic, social, and emotional support from their interactions.

Recommendations for Practitioners: Data from this study suggests that online doctoral students are interested in making social and academic connections. Practitioners should leverage technology and on-campus supports to promote extracurricular interactions for online students.

Recommendation for Researchers: Rather than focus on professional socialization, students in the online doctoral community were interested in providing social and academic support to peers. Researchers should consider how socialization in online doctoral programs differs from traditional, face-to-face programs.

Impact on Society: As universities increase online offerings, it is important to consider the issues that impact retention in online programs. By identifying the social structures that support online community, this study helps build knowledge around retention and engagement of online students.

Future Research: Future research should continue to explore the unique social networks that support online students.
community, online learning, virtual classrooms, cohort, social network, socialization
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