Understanding the Online Doctoral Learning Experience: Factors that Contribute to Students’ Sense of Community

Jeremy Carl Byrd, Amridge University, Montgomery, AL, USA


As the number of students taking online courses continues to grow steadily, it is becoming increasingly important to inquire about the experiences of these students in order to understand the factors that contribute to their success. It is imperative that the social needs of students be understood, as interaction is an important aspect of the educational experience. Sense of community, which results from interaction, can make a significant impact on the success of online students. The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore the lived experiences of doctoral students who have taken courses online in an effort to illuminate the factors that contribute to their sense of community. To achieve a better understanding of these factors, in depth interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 12 doctoral students. As a result of the analysis, it was determined that the following four factors contributed to the sense of community felt amongst students enrolled in an online doctoral program: (a) a cohort experience, (b) a face to face, on campus orientation course, (c) faith, prayer, and spirituality, and (d) challenge and tragedy. The results of this study add to the existing literature on understanding the online student experience and sense of community within the context of online higher education, and the implications and recommendations made as a result of the findings in this study can be used by faculty members and administrators to better facilitate sense of community in online courses and degree programs.


Sense of community, online learning, higher education, online learning communities

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