On-campus and online : the lived experiences of students enrolled in the online courses of a major research university
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Online education’s potential to “scale-up” the traditional lecture-based, face-to-face course while maintaining or improving the quality of instruction attracts the attention of university administrators, faculty, and policymakers interested in opening access to higher education and expanding access to faculty experts. However, previous research has focused on distance education and not online education offered through campus-based institutions. As such, this dissertation used a qualitative, phenomenological approach to examine the lived experiences of students enrolled in online courses offered through a major research university (MRU). This study employed student engagement and developmental ecology theories to present the perspectives of 11 students through the analysis of student interviews, journals, and questionnaires; course syllabi; and faculty interviews. The significance of this study lies in its capacity to capture student perceptions and behaviors to better understand how online courses, and specific components of such courses, promote or discourage undergraduate student engagement in the modern research university. The interview and journal data indicated that online courses have the capacity to promote active and collaborative learning, academically challenge students, and contribute to a supportive campus environment at an MRU. Students related an enhanced sense of being independent and responsible for their own learning to online courses’ physical and transactional distance. Further, they considered anonymity as crucial to honest interactions with peers and teaching assistants and strengthened their commitment to one another. With regard to student-faculty interactions, students in the synchronous courses tended to form meaningful connections with faculty through intimate, face-to-face interactions rather than through online activities. The study also found that the perception held by some students that online courses equate to an “easy ‘A’” and mandated course enrollment negatively influenced participants’ investment of time and effort in their online courses. Given these findings, this dissertation calls for instructors and policymakers at major research universities to integrate key online and face-to-face components into online course designs and dedicate the necessary resources to engage students across the physical and transactional gap. For their part, students may consider how settings beget certain behaviors in their selection of physical workspaces and strategically utilize in- and out-of-class activities as active and collaborative learners.