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Peabody online Ed.D. in Leadership and Learning in Organizations

Lam Pham working with
Xiu Cravens, Associate Dean for International Affairs, Associate Professor of the Practice, Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations


Online learning is a rapidly growing part of the educational landscape, suggesting a need for the development of a core pedagogy. The Community of Inquiry Model suggests that a cohesive learning community contributes to student learning; however, the model has yet to develop a coherent framework for understanding how online learning communities are built and maintained. We contribute to closing this knowledge gap through a qualitative analysis of student experiences in one online-only course. The results suggest that students use multiple modes of communication such as texting and chat boxes to capitalize on more numerous but shorter interactions with each other. We suggest that instructors can capitalize on these multiple modes of communication to develop a strong virtual learning community.

Theoretical framework

This study is conducted in the context of an online-only Ed.D. program at Vanderbilt, where classes include both asynchronous content and virtual live sessions. We investigate the interactional dynamics between students in this program by applying the social-constructivist view to online learning. Social constructivism is based on the idea that learners construct their knowledge through the process of negotiating their understanding with others (Moore, 2014; So & Brush, 2008). While social constructivism is a widely applied theoretical framework for studying traditional face-to-face classes (Au, 1998; Dewey, 1929; Kukla, 2013; Moore, 2014; Powell & Kalina, 2009; Vygotsky, 1987), much less is known about the process through which students co-construct knowledge in the absence of a shared physical space.

One of the more frequently-used frameworks for online learning that draws from social constructivism is the Community of Inquiry (COI) model (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). Shown in Figure 1 below, the COI model asserts that the online educational experience exists at the intersection of social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2008). That is, the sense of belonging to a learning community (social presence), the conscious engagement with course content (cognitive presence), and the tangible support from an instructor (teaching presence) all shape students’ educational process (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). While the COI model is a useful framework for understanding how an online learning community constructs knowledge, it is silent on how these presences are developed and maintained. This research contributes to the COI framework with an investigation of how the three presences are developed as part of an online learning community.

Fig. 1 The Community of Inquiry Model

Data Sources and Methods

This project was conducted in an online-only social research methods course, taken by first-year students. Students had already taken four classes together when they enrolled in research methods. This timing is useful, because students already had the opportunity to develop relationships; however, the course comes early enough in the program for students to remember how they began building their social ties.

We use a phenomenological approach to investigate the concept of an online learning community based on the shared meaning that course participants have from their lived experiences of taking online classes together (Cresswell, 1998). In alignment with the phenomenological approach, this investigation assumes that there exists both a subjective experience of participants’ online learning community and an objectively shared experience of the community (Cresswell, 1998).

Data come from two main sources: observations of live sessions and interviews with students. The course meets virtually for 90 minutes every week over 14 weeks. Observing live sessions allows us to witness how students interact within their learning community. Interviews allow us to access students’ shared understanding of their learning community (Weiss, 1995). We use a purposive sample of students, choosing along a range of participation levels: students who speak very little during whole-group discussion, students who sometimes speak, and students who actively speak in every discussion. This sample was chosen under the logic that students who vary in their level of comfort with speaking in class also vary in their perceptions of the classroom community. This range allows us to obtain a contrast in perspectives to be used in fully describing students’ shared sense of community (Weiss, 1995).

The analytic approach utilizes a line-by-line, grounded theory coding approach as outlined in Charmaz (2014). During the initial coding of interview transcripts and observation field notes, we named each approximate line in order to begin attributing meaning to the information (Charmaz, 2014). These line-by-line codes allowed us to formalize the ideas that emerged from the data. After initially coding each interview and the field notes, we selected a set of focused codes that were significant or frequent from among the initial codes. We then named six themes by aggregating the focused codes that appeared to be related examples of a broader underlying concept. The initial codes, focused codes, and subsequent themes allowed us to organize and integrate the data into a coherent framework.


The analysis of focused codes yielded six major themes. Of these six themes, we further categorize three as the modes of communication between students: using the class chat box, using text messages, and using virtual breakout groups. The other three themes are related to nodes in students’ belief about their learning community: exceptionalizing the group, valuing classmates, and capitalizing on numerous instances of small-contact. Table 1 below shows a coding structure where we define themes and show the codes supporting each theme.

Table 1. Themes Explaining Community in an Online Class

Modes of Communication

  • Theme 1: Using the class chat box – Students utilize a chat box visible to the entire class to as a way to provide input, create levity, and share affirmations.
  • Codes:
    • Using the chat box to affirm other students.
    • Using the chat box to provide input without interrupting the speaker.
    • Using the chat box to make jokes.

  • Theme 2: Using text messages – Students use text messaging software external to the virtual classroom such as GroupMe or WhatsApp to communicate private messages relay information, maintain conversations beyond the live session.
  • Codes:
    • Texting to conveniently share information.
    • Texting to continue conversations after live sessions.
    • Texting to chat before class begins.
    • Texting to organize group meetings and projects.
    • Texting to conduct private conversations.
    • Texting to send caring or emotionally supportive messages.

  • Theme 3: Using time in breakout groups – Students use time in small groups (called breakouts) during live sessions to clarify what content discussed in the whole-group space, commiserate, to interact socially, to learn more about one another, and to work together on course assignment.
  • Codes:
    • Using break out groups to interact socially.
    • Using break out groups to commiserate about the workload.
    • Using break out groups to learn about other classmates.
    • Using break out groups to work together on an assignment.

Nodes of Belief about Learning Community

  • Theme 4: Exceptionalizing the group – Students discussed the exceptional nature of their learning community as composed of engaged, focused, and highly capable individuals who are the first to experience [University’s] online Ed.D. program.
  • Codes:
    • Exceptionalizing the group by discussing the high caliber of people who are accepted into the program.
    • Exceptionalizing the group by emphasizing their status as the first cohort to experience [University’s] online Ed.D. program.
    • Exceptionalizing the group as engaged individuals who work through problems together.

  • Theme 5: Valuing classmates – Students emphasize that they value their classmates both as sources of social and emotional support and as valuable contributors to group discussions.
  • Codes:
    • Valuing classmates by appreciating the quality of class discussions.
    • Valuing the caring personal messages shared by a classmate.
    • Valuing classmates as sources of general emotional support.
    • Valuing what other classmates say during class discussions.
    • Valuing classmates by trying to allow everyone a chance to provide input.

  • Theme 6: Capitalizing on Numerous Instance of Small-Contact – Students take advantage of numerous short interactions with each other (individual texts, group texts, a short comment during break out groups) in order to build relationships.
  • Codes:
    • Sending a private message to comment on something being discussed in class.
    • Becoming more comfortable with quickly reading facial expressions.
    • Relaying information using texts.
    • Starting short conversations in the virtual classroom before class begins or continuing after the class ends.

Together, these six themes provide evidence that the learning community among this group of students is quite cohesive, even though the main ways students interact with each other differs from what students might do in physical classes. All of the interviewees expressed their belief that the class had formed a connected, caring, and engaged community. One student expressed this sentiment by saying, “I was feeling it towards the end of last semester, but I think that it has increased for everyone over the course of this semester and I mean I can’t wait to see what it turns into by the end of three years, because we’re sort of surprisingly close considering that we’ve never met each other face to face.” This statement expresses a growing sense of closeness with fellow classmates and also shows that the student values such relationships and is excited to continue developing the relationships with them.

Together, the six themes in Table 1 help to characterize the online classroom community as a place where close social ties can be built and also highlight the tools that students use to build relationships. Additionally, when coding, we noticed that we often coded the same line of text as both a mode and a node. This suggested that the three modes of communication interact with the three nodes of belief such that students use each of the modes to support each of the nodes. Table 2 below utilizes a matrix to organize the interactions between the modes and nodes (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2014).

Table 2. Interactions between the Modes of Communication and the Nodes of Belief Regarding this Learning Community

Table 2 shows examples of how students use communication modes to facilitate a node in their belief regarding the learning community. Note that all names used are pseudonyms. For example, the quotes for using the chat box show (1) how Matthew believes the group is exceptional because the chat box allows his “remarkable” classmates to contribute even while someone else speaks; (2) how Lisa observes her classmates valuing each other through affirmations in the chat box; and (3) how Allen capitalizes on a small-contact point by posting a quick note that shows he knows his classmates well enough to anticipate their reaction.

The findings suggest that cohesive classroom communities can be built virtually, but the ways that students interact will likely differ from the traditional, physical classroom experience. They also suggest that online course instructors should pay close attention to text-based channels of communication like chat boxes and text messaging, because students value these modes of communication as a way to capitalize on small-contact points to interact more often. Most saliently, our findings suggest that public chats can help create a positive culture when students consistently share affirmations in a way that does not interrupt the spoken conversation. Future extensions of this work will test these findings on a different population of students, especially younger students who may not be as motivated to engage in their online courses.


This research responds to an urgent need to develop a coherent pedagogy for online instruction. The rapid increase in virtual learning opportunities coupled with the tendency for online programs to target traditionally under-served students means that better understanding the learning experiences of these students will be important to achieving high-quality educational outcomes for students who need the most support. Clearly understanding the needs of less traditional students in virtual classrooms speaks to the multimodal aspect of this year’s AERA theme because it diversifies our collective understanding of how to best serve a diverse group of students.

This research uses the Community of Inquiry model (derived from the social-constructivist view of learning) which suggests that social presence involves collaborative communication and group cohesion (Garrison et al., 2010). The COI model suggests that collaborative presences contributes to student learning but does not elucidate how a group culture is developed. Contributing to this gap in the literature, we investigate how students create channels of communication through multiple modes (e.g., chatting) and multiple nodes (e.g., exceptionalizing their shared experience). Beyond contributing to a theoretical understanding of how students virtually build community, this research makes an important practical contribution to educators, because it illuminates strategies that could be used to bridge the social gap that students may feel in virtual classrooms. These practical strategies are important to the development of a core pedagogy for effective online learning.

View Lam’s project poster.


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