Cori Dunagan

Date of Award

Summer 8-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communications Media

First Advisor

Jay Start, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Mark J. Piwinsky, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Nurhaya Muchtar, Ph.D.


The purpose of this qualitative dissertation is to explore the lived experience of online students. This study provided real-world accounts of students who graduated from graduate programs offered at both online non-profit and for-profit institutions. The grand research question is “What are the lived experiences of successful graduate students who have graduated from online programs as viewed through the theoretical lens of the Community of Inquiry framework?” This inquiry was designed to identify the types of academic support successful students used while pursuing their graduate degrees online.

The study’s literature review generated questions such as: “What is it like for online students to overcome online learning limitations?” These limitations include areas such as access to instructor, peer or technical support. Literature indicates that social and instructor support are two areas that greatly influence a learner’s satisfaction with their online course as well as their overall success in an online program. The overarching purpose of this study is to examine the methods that successful online students used to overcome barriers they faced when pursuing online education. The literature review influenced the development of four research questions.

RQ1: What are the barriers to online graduate student success?

RQ2: What are the critical factors of online learning that lead to online graduate student success?

RQ3: Is instructor support more important to the online graduate student success than peer support?

RQ4: What types of social supports do successful online graduate students use?

This study used a transcendental phenomenological qualitative design to explore and aid in answering these research questions (Moustakas, 1994). Data collection included in-depth interviews with a non-homogenous, purposive sample of twelve co-researchers. The participants each graduated from a 100% online graduate-level program from either a for-profit or non-profit, post-secondary institution. The fact that the participants completed their academic course of study that they started is the measure of success for this study. For this study, graduation is the ultimate measure of persistence.

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