CCE Theses and Dissertations

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Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - NSU Access Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Computing Technology in Education (DCTE)


Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences


Laurie P Dringus

Committee Member

Steven Terrell

Committee Member

Marti Snyder


community of inquiry, instructional design approaches, learning process models, online learning, traditional students, young college student perceptions


Online learning courses are taken by nearly 31% of college students (Allen & Seaman, 2011). The majority of those enrolled in online learning are graduate and non-traditional undergraduate students. Survey data from multiple sources show a growing number of traditional students enrolling in online courses or online only universities. There is a lack of information about younger college students enrolling in online courses and those attending online only institutions. Without more research on the perceptions of this population, it is difficult to design an effective online learning environment. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework has been used as a process model that defines, describes and measures the tasks supporting online learning. The core elements are the three overlapping presences of teaching, social and cognitive and the interrelationships among those presences. Through more than a decade of work on the framework, a methodology and survey instrument emerged for studying the potential and effectiveness of online learning. Will younger college students enrolling today perceive the CoI framework and the presences from the model, the same way that non-traditional students have in the last decade?

Most CoI studies sample non-traditional adults aged 25 and older. American Public University System (APUS) is a for-profit online only institution which publishes research studies that contribute to the growing number of CoI studies available. In the last four years APUS has provided large samples to validate the CoI model and investigate how CoI relates to retention and course design. The limited purpose of the research is to determine whether the CoI framework and its current results, is applicable to a select group of traditional students aged 21 and under who enroll in only online courses APUS.

Through an exploratory study using statistical tests including a factorial analysis, the first sample population (n=2,019) consisted of students', 21 and under, responses to the CoI questionnaire and the second sample (n=125,039) was the responses of students older than 21. The samples were compared to determine if there was any significant difference between the perceptions of non-traditional and younger college students on the CoI model. Results indicated that the comparative means of the two populations are highly correlated at .924 but the p value is .000 at the 95% confidence interval. The two populations are different. A factor analysis showed that both samples perceived a three factor solution. The total variance explained was very similar for both samples. For the students who were 21 and under, the three factors accounted for 77.16% of the total and for the older students, three factors accounted for 74.17% of the total. The factor analysis results from the younger students also show that each item from the questionnaire is associated with the appropriate factor. The factor analysis results correspond to previous validated research conducted on the CoI model.

The results continue to support the validity of the CoI model, but the differences in the populations are significant. The significance tests are useful but may not be as meaningful as the factor analysis due to the size of the samples. This research adds to the body of knowledge on the CoI model, a dominant theory that describes what learners perceive in an online environment. The results inform the understanding of the CoI model as it applies to younger college learners' perceptions of an effective online learning environment.

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