Volume:4, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2012

A Qualitative Inquiry of Online Education from the Perspective of Community College Students
Theresa Capra [about]

DESCRIPTORS: community college students, online education, online learning as a distinct pedagogy.

SYNOPSIS:  This paper describes a research in progress that aims at exploring the student experience with online courses within the context of the CoI paradigm. A central question of how community college students describe their online learning experience within social, cognitive, and instructional domains will drive its implementation.

The Issue

Online education has altered the higher education landscape and ushered in a new era of teaching and learning. Over the past decade, enrollment in online courses has grown faster than the entire student body throughout higher education (Allen & Seamen, 2011). Community college students are particularly attracted to the flexibility of online learning because when compared to four-year students, they tend to be older than the traditional age of 18-22, declared financially independent, work at least 35 hours a week, and have family commitments beyond the classroom (Horn & Nevill, 2006). This, however, generates a precarious situation because most community college entrants are academically at-risk and in need of remediation upon enrollment. Internet courses may not be ideal for an academically weak population (Conklin, 2008; Levy, 2003; Smith Jaggars & Bailey, 2010). Consequently, community college students are more likely to take, and subsequently fail, an online course than their four-year counterparts (Aragon & Johnson, 2008; Conklin, 2008; Smith Jaggars & Bailey, 2010). Community college administrators have declared that the expansion of online education is paramount to their institution’s future (Instructional Technology Council, 2010). Therefore, research that examines the phenomenon of online education from the perspective of community college students is timely and relevant.

The Conceptual Frame: Online Learning as a Distinct Pedagogy

The overarching goal of the study described here is to conduct an in-depth, phenomenological examination of community college students’ shared experiences in courses offered online. It has been argued that online education is very different from traditional instruction that tends to be dominated by the instructor with limited student interaction (Sonwalkar, 2009). In many online courses, student participation and interaction within the course is required leaving the notion of the “sage on the stage” far behind (Sonwalkar, p.151). However, much of the research that examines online learning compares it to traditional instruction without consideration of major philosophical and pedagogical differences.  The Community of Inquiry (CoI) paradigm, developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) was designed to assist educators with understanding the unique learning dynamic created in computer-mediated environments. According to Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) a meaningful experience occurs when the presence of social, cognitive, and instructional elements interact and are realized by students (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). Social presence is related to the ability of the student to identify with all members of the learning community and generate a sense of “real” people in the course (i.e., classmates and instructor). Cognitive presence relates to the extent to which learners create and construct knowledge, either through active discourse or individual reflection. Throughout the dynamic, the instructor must facilitate and guide the process so that learners can achieve a meaningful learning experience (Community of Inquiry, 2011).

This study will explore the student experience with online courses within the context of the CoI paradigm. With this conceptual frame in mind, a central question of how community college students describe their online learning experience within social, cognitive, and instructional domains will drive its implementation.


Using qualitative methods, primarily face-to-face interviews, a sample of approximately 15 community college students will be “tracked” over a typical 15 week college semester to capture and describe their experience with courses delivered fully online. Prolonged engagement with the participants will entail two face-to-face interviews and two email prompts spanning the entire semester. Additionally, the student experience will be broken down into four subgroups to achieve a comprehensive narrative. First, the nontraditional (older, financially independent, ethnic minority, low-income) student experience will be examined. Today, community colleges educate a disproportionate number of nontraditional students in comparison to 4-year institutions (American Association of Community Colleges, 2012). Next, the traditional (age 18-22, financially dependent) student experience will be represented since it has been established that traditional students are enrolling in community colleges with greater frequency in response to economic recession and soaring tuition costs (National Student Clearinghouse, 2010).  Finally, the experience of a first-time online learner, as well as students with previous online experience will be distinguished. According to Xu and Smith Jaggars (2011), community college students may choose to abandon or continue online learning based on an initial experience. Accordingly, retention in online courses improves when factoring previous student experience with this mode of learning. Although it is clear why community college students prefer online learning, it is uncertain why some students continue with online learning and others abandon it (Xu & Smith Jaggars, 2011). Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that research about the experience of a first time online learner is scant (Tyler-Smith, 2006; Wilson, 2008). Thus, this distinction will enrich the description of the student learning experience.


This study is important not only because it is examining an emerging and evolving form of pedagogy, but because it will fill gaps in the literature. First, throughout the higher education literature, most research, regardless of the topic, is based on students attending 4-year institutions (Marti, 2009). Next, despite abundant research that examines online education, most studies have utilized quantitative procedures and based conclusions on numerical data analysis instead of directly examining the student experience in-depth (Brophy, 2010; Reisetter & Boris, 2004; Tello 2007). Lastly, many studies have presented a positive student response to this form of learning—students have been found to favor online learning and perceive it to be equivalent, even more enjoyable, than traditional classroom settings (Herbert, 2006; Morris, 2011; Ritter & Lemke, 2000). Yet, a paradox warranting further investigation persists: Why do students report satisfaction with online education while many institutions, particularly community colleges, report increased attrition and failure? An underpinning philosophy of online learning, which is to increase student access to education by providing asynchronous courses, may not be feasible for some groups, especially students who are low-income, first generation college students, academically underprepared, and inner-city or rural (Smith Jagagars & Bailey, 2010).

Summary: Potential of Study   

Because community colleges struggle with retention, particularly in the area of distance education, research exploring the student learning experience may be of interest to a variety of community college educators. The recent national focus on the role and significance of community colleges increases the potential interest of this study. For example, the “American Graduation Initiative” is calling  for the strengthening of community colleges with an aim of producing five million additional graduates by the end of 2020 (Obama, 2010).  Moreover, it has been noted that community college educators could benefit from increased research to help support the large pool of underprepared and disadvantaged students populating their classrooms (Schuetz, 2009). Overall, this study will make a valuable contribution to the higher education literature.


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Capra, Theresa - Assistant Professor Education, Mercer County Community College, West Windsor, New Jersey; Doctoral Candidate: Concordia University, Chicago.

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