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ED 601 Introduction to Applied Social Science Research

Measuring presence in online courses:  How Community of Inquiry improves learning experience for adult learners in rural or remote Alaska


            This study proposes to examine adult learners in rural or remote Alaska.  Using a survey design with quantitative and qualitative elements, data of student perceptions of online courses will be gathered before and after students take an online course.  Working within the Community of Inquiry model, content presence, instructor presence and social presence will be measured.  The findings should indicate whether there are any barriers in these realms that impair students’ learning experiences in online delivery of education.

            In my experience teaching in a post-secondary community college setting, many adult learners I advise state they “don’t do” online courses. Students are unable (or unwilling) to explain why they did not like online courses or their rationale in avoiding online courses.  This presented difficulties in advising students in a mostly online program.  Anecdotally, as non-traditional or adult learners, the students are at least 25 years of age, although most are in an older demographic.  Most of the students live in the local, semi-urban area with several living off the road system in rural Alaska.  There are five community campuses in Alaska that are geographically separated from the main university system.  These campuses are accessible only by air or boat, and are not part of the road or rail system.  Students living in rural or remote Alaska sometimes have to travel by boat or snowmachine to reach the closest community campus.  Online or distance delivery can alleviate the need for travel, but students may not have stable or reliable internet services in their home communities to access electronic learning platforms. 

            I have to wonder why adult learners “don’t do” online courses. It is especially puzzling why rural students, who would otherwise have to leave their community to attend school, avoid online courses.  Does the online educational platform or the lack of practical technological understanding intimidate them? For the rural students, do they have adequate, convenient and reliable access to the Internet?  Did these students have a negative online learning experience in the past?  Was the course so poorly designed that the content and interactions lack relevance to rural adult learners?  Did the instructor or content ignore the barriers faced by rural students?  The answer is likely a combination of all these elements.  These adult learners, regardless of location, are adept in communicating by e-mail, and using personal devices or computers to access the Internet and social media.  It stands to reason those students “don’t do” online courses because of some other barrier. 

Literature Review

            This study will examine the barriers faced by rural adult learners in an online education environment.  What changes can instructors make to their course to meet the needs of rural adult learners in online education?  How can content and instructor methods be adapted to better suit rural adult learners in online courses?  Teaching online is not as simple as loading face-tp-face content into the educational platform.  Through simple changes to the course design and teaching methods, instructors can better meet the expectations of rural adult learners in an online course.  This will not only reach more rural students, but also create greater student satisfaction with online delivery. 

            Adult learners are a growing population of college students.   The typically definition of adult learners or non-traditional students are those students who are 25 years of age or older (Wyatt 2011).  Of the total student population in 2015, 40% were over the age 25.  Sixty-percent of these student were women (National Center for Education Statistics; 2018).  The NCES projects the number of non-traditional adult learners will increase more than 8% by 2026.  It is important to remember that adult learners bring a unique set of experiences, perspectives and challenges to a college classroom.  Most are working or caring for family, and they have existing financial, family and social commitments.  Some adult learners re-enter college after an interruption of prior college attendance.  Others are first-time college students who are seeking to enhance their job skills or change careers.  Still others look to college as a way to reinvent themselves after a life-changing event, such as a job separation, death of a spouse, divorce and so forth (Kasworm 2008).  These students, despite their maturity and experience in the “real world,” may be apprehensive about the college experience.  These students, who were confident and secure in their roles in the “real world,” are now diving into the world of academia, and are far outside of their comfort zone (Barr 2016).  Adult students may feel trepidation stemming from a fear of repeating prior intimidating educational ventures (Donavant, Daniel, & MacKewn, 2013).  The adult learner, even with his or her ability to set goals and plan long-term, may experience doubts and anxiety about entering or returning to college (Kasworm 2008).      

            In fall 2015, 15% of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions took at least one distance education course as part of their degree program.  Fourteen-percent of students took their college program entirely online (NCES 2018).  The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) defines online education as “[f]ormal interaction which uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and which supports regular and substantive interaction between the students and instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously” (Miller, Topper, & Richardson 2017). Online education is particularly appealing to adult learners because it does not tie them down to a specific campus classroom at a specific time. Online education allows adult learners to take courses around their existing work/family/social obligations.  For rural students, online education allows them to stay in their communities, care for children and elders, and partake in traditional cultural activities (Simon, Burton, Lockhart, & O’Donnell 2015).  Pacing can be self-directed and the content uses learning tools, such as discussion forums, media or readings that adult learners seem to enjoy (Bourdeaux and Schoenack 2016).  Care should be taken, though, to tailor content for relevance to rural students.  If there are no paved roads in their village, it makes little sense to use a paving machine image to illustrate a concept in the lesson (Sutton 2017).  In the online environment, adults best learn content through acts of meaning making connected to their adult identities (Kasworm 2008) relating to their life or work experience. 

            Even with content connected to the adult learners’ life experience, use of technology or the access to technology may be a barrier to online education for rural students.  In Alaska, approximately 250,200 households had computer or internet access in 2015.  Of these households, 70% identified as American Indian/Alaska Native (NCES 2018).  However, the data does not indicate whether these households were located in urban or rural areas.  With an overall population of 739,795 for that year, it is reasonable to believe most households with computer and internet access are located in urban areas.  Most adults have the technological proficiency to perform basic computer operations.  Table 507.16 of the 2016 NCES report shows over 40% of adults between the ages of 25 and 65 have a level 1 proficiency in problem-solving in technology rich environments (NCES 2018).  Level 1 proficiency includes

tasks that typically require the use of widely available and familiar technology applications, such as e-mail software or a web browser. There is little or no navigation required to access the information or commands required to solve the problem. The problem may be solved regardless of the respondent’s awareness and use of specific tools and functions (e.g., a sort function). The tasks involve few steps and a minimal number of operators.

(Rampey, Finnegan, Goodman, Mohadjer, Krenzke, Hogan, & Provasnik, 2016, Appendix B-10.)

Level 2 proficiency includes more complex tasks, for which approximately 30% of adults can perform (Rampey et al., 2016).  The more confident adult learners are using the internet, the more interaction they have with the instructor and their classmates (Kuo and Belland 2016).  The usual online learning tasks of accessing a reading, watching a video lecture, posting in a discussion forum, or uploading a completed assignment in a learning management system are within the realm of technological expertise for most adults. 

            In addition to addressing potential technological barriers, faculty must acknowledge the unique characteristics that adult learners bring to the classroom, in person or online. Donovant (2013) shows that adults bring a more informed and sophisticated perspective to the classroom and as just as or more prepared academically.  Adult learners expect clarity in online instruction.  This includes simple, concise instructions, clear expectations, and good communication by the instructor.  However, the poor use of learning tools, such as not having a course completely set up or out-of-date deadlines, will stop the learning process and result in student dissatisfaction with the course (Bourdeaux and Schoenack 2016). 

            Although there is research addressing adult learners and online delivery, there is a marked paucity of research specifically addressing the needs of rural Alaskan students and the barriers they may encounter in online education.  The few works produced dealing with rural or remote students are set in other countries.  While Northeastern Canada or the Australian outback is not entirely representative of rural Alaska, parallels can be drawn from previous studies.  Renes (2015) identifies three barriers to rural student success in an online environment: student feelings of isolation, knowledge or attitude of the instructor, and ability to use the technology.  Parkes (2015) study echoes these findings and includes an overreliance on text-based learning. 

            Rural students are physically isolated due to their remote locations; they could feel isolated in online learning.  Students want feedback on assignments and they do want interactions with the content, the instructor and their peers (Renes 2015).  Instructors can reduce students’ perception of isolation by creating a social presence within the course and making the learning environment inviting and relaxing.  This could be as simple as an informal discussion thread or a chatroom, or as complex as video lectures or audio feedback. 

            While most faculty recognize the uniqueness adult learners bring to the classroom, some do not perceive the need to alter their preferred teaching methodologies to accommodate adult learners (Donovant et al. 2013).  Teaching indigenous students is more effective if instructors are familiar, or at least acknowledge, of rural students’ learning styles, and indigenous knowledge is invited into the content (Renes 2015).  One participant in Simon et al. (2016) stated the instructor “didn’t take it into consideration that we were all adult students and who haven’t been in school for years and didn’t take into consideration that some of us had trouble with math” (pp. 11). Instructors need to provide significant guidance and encouragement that responds to the needs of online adult learners (Kuo & Belland 2016). 

            Instructors should keep in mind that students in rural locations may experience frequent or severe connectivity due to weather or natural disasters.  Instructors of indigenous students should also be aware that traditional cultural activities, such as hunting or fishing may take students away from the course.  Institutions should recognize and appreciate limitations that rural students face, such as infrequent access to internet, lack of availability or lack of technological prowess (Renes 2015).  Instructors can help rural students overcome the access barrier by using a variety of learning modalities, such as multiple formats of information (e.g. video lecture with a text transcript), by being easy to contact through a variety of means, by offering students alternative methods of submitting completed work, and frequent communication regarding any issues with the online platform or changes in assignments, in addition to responding quickly to student inquiries and timely grading of completed work (Parkes 2015). 

            The purpose of this study is to identify barriers that prevent rural or remote adult students from taking online courses and explore how to overcome those barriers with adult learners in rural or remote locations.  Included is an examination of any situational barriers (travel to campus, access to internet) or dispositional (lack of technology skills, prior negative learning experiences) barriers rural or remote adult learners overcome must to take advantage of online education.  The ultimate question addressed is whether adaptation of online course content and instructor methods will improve the learning experience for rural or remote Alaska adult learners in online courses. 

            With the growing demand for distance delivered education, adult learners, including rural students, need to embrace online courses.  Adult learners bring a real-world perspective to class and expect the content to be relevant and connected to their experiences.  There is an untapped pool of prospective online adult learners in rural or remote areas.  For rural students, feelings of isolation, knowledge or attitude of the instructor, and ability to use the technology can be barriers to using online education.  Simon’s study sums up the need for “more appropriate post-secondary distance education options [which] will allow more families to remain in remote and rural [communities] while they study instead of moving to the cities, contributing to the long-term sustainability of their communities” (pp. 13).

            Using the Community of Inquiry model developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) as its theoretical framework, this study will examine any barriers to rural or remote Alaska students in the three areas that comprise this model.  In the COI model, the elements of cognitive presence, teaching presence and social presence intersect to create the optimal learning experience for students.  Cognitive presence is the content of the course that supports dialogue within the course.  Teaching presence refers to the structure or process within the course, and includes content selection and establishment of a climate of inquiry within the course.  Teaching presence draws on how well the course is designed and how well the instructor facilitates cognitive and social process for meaningful learning.  The final element is the social presence.  This is the area addresses the social presence of the instructor and students in the course, and how each interacts with the other within the other elements. In this element, students feel socially and emotionally connected to others within the online environment.  By feeling connected to others in the environment, students can achieve deeper learning and contribute more to the learning of others in the community. 

            For this study, does the online course fulfil the social presence elements?  This will alleviate the rural or remote student’s feelings of isolation in the course and encourage their contributions in discussions, both content-related and personal.  Is the content relevant to the rural or remote learner?  Developing content that has practical meaning and relevance is essential for adult learners in general, and rural or remote students specifically.  Does the instructor take into account the rural or remote students’ difficulty in accessing the course and make allowances for alternative means of receiving content or submitting completed work?  Focusing on how the three elements work together in online education, the study will show how rural or remote adult learners’ learning experience can be improved though changes in course content or instructor methods. 


            The participants in this study are adult students attending college at the five rural or remote campuses within Alaska.  These campuses serve areas of Alaska that are not on the road system and typically accessed by boat, snowmachine or aircraft.  The campuses support the education goals of students living in rural or remote areas of the state.  Ideally, the participants will be first-time students with no prior experience with online education.  To gather an adequate number of participants, students who have taken online courses in the past may be included.  Up to 100 students per campus, or a total target population of 300-500 students across Alaska, will be invited to participate in a non-random volunteer survey.  It is anticipated that approximately 20 to 60 students per campus will actually respond and complete the survey.  Using a non-random volunteer-based sample may not adequately represent the population that is the subject of the study (O’Leary 2014, p. 188). 

            The primary data collection method will be a two-phased cross-sectional self-administered online survey.  The survey is based on questionnaire developed by Swan et al. (2008).  This instrument is a 34-question survey that assesses social, teaching and content presences in the framework of COI.  Swan et al. determined the survey was a valid and reliable tool to measure presence in all three realms of COI in an online environment.  The data provided through the survey will compare students before taking an online course and student after taking an online course.  The data may be applied to all adult learners taking online courses in rural or remote Alaska.  In the first phase of the study, a descriptive survey will be used to gather the demographic, behavior and attitude information of the respondents who are preparing to take their first online course (Cresswell 2015, p. 381).  One or two open-ended questions will be included in the phase 1 survey. 

            After completion of the first survey, a series of informal, semi-structured one-on-one interviews with volunteer respondents will take place.  These interviews will gather narrative information that specifically addresses the student’s perspective of online education before taking an online course. 

            The phase 2 survey begins after students have completed their first online course.  Follow up interviews will address the same open-ended questions as the phase 1 survey.  While using a survey design will allow for comparison, provided quantitative and qualitative data, and provide confidentially to the respondents, there can be difficulties in adequately representing the population and gathering the number of responses needed for a reliable survey (O’Leary, p. 190). 

            Data analysis consists of quantitative and qualitative analysis of phase 1 and 2 surveys.  Each question on the instrument will be scored with ordinals using a scale of 1 (“Strongly Disagree) to 5 (“Strongly Agree”).  Inferential statistics will describe student perception of online education before and after taking an online course and apply the findings to the greater population of adult online students.  The analysis will also indicate whether each element of COI is being met within the course.  Using word analysis for the interview portion of the survey will show the common themes of students’ perceptions of online education. 

            Limitations of this proposed study include a small sample size and possibly access to students at the community campuses.  Because of the potentially small sample size, the result may not be applicable to the general population of adult learners in rural or remote Alaska.  In limiting the study to first-time online students, other students’ perspectives that could contribute to the results may not be considered.

            After obtaining Institutional Review Board approval of the proposed study, permission from the dean or director of each community campus will be obtained.  The participants are adults and a detailed informed consent will be sufficient.  The informed consent should include information about the benefit of this study to other adult online students in rural or remote Alaska. 


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