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«The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how communication preferences, learning preferences, and perceptions about online learning ...»

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MERRILLS, J. MARIA SWEENEY, Ph.D. Factors Affecting Nontraditional African

American Students’ Participation in Online World Literature Classes. (2010)

Directed by Dr. Jewell E. Cooper. 175 pp.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how communication

preferences, learning preferences, and perceptions about online learning affect

nontraditional African American students’ participation in online world literature courses

at a historically Black university (HBCU) in the southeastern United States. An instrumental case study was the research design used. Data were collected from individual interviews of participants and non-participatory observations of Blackboard course shells and analyzed through content analysis (Babbie, 2003). Chen’s Learner-toLearner Transactional Distance, Learner-to-Content Transactional Distance, and Learnerto-Interface Transactional Distance theory (2001), along with Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance (1996) informed the data analysis. Analysis occurred in two stages. Within-case analysis was used to understand the experiences of online learning with individual participants. Later, a cross-case analysis was used “to build abstractions across cases” (Merriam, 1998, p. 195) as well as to compare participants’ experiences to ascertain a grander view of participation of African American nontraditional students in online world literature classes.

The findings of the study explained nontraditional African American student preferences for frequent oral communication among students, preferably face-to-face. In addition, students wished to make oral contact with online instructors; however, they desired to have the instructor to communicate with them via email. In addition, findings also revealed how African American students could often be overwhelmed with long reading requirements. Their preferences were to have content condensed for learning.

They also preferred to have study guides which highlighted key information to which one’s focus should be placed. Furthermore, students preferred to work and learn in groups. In order to enhance their enjoyment and participation in the course, participants preferred to make connections with subject matter, topics, and peers. For the most part, participants were drawn to online learning for the convenience, though their learning preferences were not often met in the online learning environment. While many participants found learning to be accessible and convenient through online courses, many of them were frustrated by slow response and feedback by online instructors and technical problems which may have occurred due to lack of savvy with online learning or Blackboard technicalities. Implications for higher education administrators, university professors, and students as related to online learning are provided.



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This dissertation has been approved by the following committee of the Faculty of The Graduate School at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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God, I thank you for giving me the strength to endure and bestowing me with the ability despite all of the hardships and obstacles. When I look back on it all, I know that it was You who was with me through it all This dissertation is dedicated to all the people that I love. To my husband, Darren, I am truly and richly blessed. Thanks for being a truly supportive husband, helping with the kids without complaint, and believing in me and the process when I did not. To my parents, John and Mary Sweeney, words cannot explain my gratitude for your support and sacrifice to step in with the children, encourage, and listen when I needed it the most.

This degree is for both of you. I could never repay your with all of the diamonds in Africa for your loving support. God has truly blessed me with beautiful parents and I am so thankful. To my sister, Dr. Lethia Jackson, thanks for the heads up and sharing your experiences through your doctoral process in order to help me with mine. To my big brother, Tony Sweeney, thanks for being a loving and protective brother. You don’t know how much I needed your reminder that the three letters, PhD, will always be a part of the dissertation that gets read, even if the rest is not. To my brother, Noel Sweeney, thank you for all of your giving, help, kind heartedness, and celebration of my efforts. You’re a true blessing in my life. To my children, Lydia (age 6), Julian (age 4), and Olivia (age 11 months), thanks for letting mom work on the dissertation and understanding that I worked so hard in order to buy you McDonald’s and pay for your higher education. You all are the heart that I carry outside of myself. To my best friends Tiffany Draughn and Dr.

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my life be like without real friends?

A very special thanks to Dr. Jewell Cooper who was there for me through beginning to end. I truly appreciate your belief in me and encouragement. Thank you for reminding me that God’s gifts are always meant to be shared.

To my committee chair and members of the committee Dr. Ceola Ross Baber, Dr.

Kathleen Casey, and Dr. Nora J. Bird, thank you for your continued guidance and commitment.

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Theoretical Framework

Statement of the Problem

Research Questions

Definition of Key Terms

Limitations of the Study

Significance of the Study




Adult Learning Theory

Influence of Culture on Communication and Learning

African American Speech and Dialogue

African American Learning Styles

Digital Inequality

Ways of Access

Time of Use

Locations of Exposure

Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Online Learning


African Americans’ Online Usage

Studies Related to Culture and Online Learning



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Data Collection Procedures



Data Analysis Procedures

Role of the Researcher

Trustworthiness of the Study



“Hit Me Up”: Contact with Classmates, Students, and the Professor


Getting a High Off of Student Interaction and Support.................69 Teacher Immediacy: Professors and Communication

“Shorten, Condense, and Learning in Different Ways”: Handling Reading, Studying for Tests, and Acknowledging Multiple Ways of Learning

Reading and Course Preparation

“The Professor is not the Only Way to Learn World Literature”:

Multiple Pathways of Learning

“Relationships that Foster Course Interest”: Connecting to Subject Matter, Topics, and Classmates

Subject Matter and Topics


“Impatience is a Virtue”: Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Learning

Advantages of Learning Online

Disadvantages of Online Learning

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Implications for Administrative Practices

Implications for Classroom Practices

Implications for Further Research








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Table 1. Participant Biographies

Table 2. Alignment of Research Questions and Data Sources

Table 3. Course Participation

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Transacted through a computer, online learning, also referred to as e-learning, web-based instruction, or computer-based training, is defined as a form of distance education—education in which the student is not at the physical location of the main campus where courses are being taken (Barbour & Reeves, 2009). Sixty-six percent of two-to-four year colleges offer online courses (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2008). Four and six-tenths million students were reported to have taken at least one online class in the fall of 2008, indicating a growth of 17 percent which exceeds the

1.2 percent growth of the student population in higher education (NCES, 2009). In fact, it appears that the future is now, for “web-based learning [or online learning] has been predicted to be the future of all types of distance learning” (Lu, Yu, & Liu, 2003, p. 497).

By 2014, 22 million students will take courses online (Ambient Insight, as cited in Nagel, 2009). Though 5.14 million will take courses face-to-face, 3.5 million will take courses solely online and 18.65 million will take at least some classes online (Nagel, 2009).

The increased use of online learning in colleges and universities has some of its beginnings in the $400 billion dollar business of higher education (Smith, 2010).

Specifically, for-profit colleges and universities are making the accessibility of postsecondary education to students who were normally excluded from traditional pathways of acquiring an education beyond high school a reality now more than ever (Kolowich, 2009). With the establishment of these online institutions of higher education, more nontraditional students can acquire degrees through billions of federal financial aid dollars which can be available to them. Given that these students have to continue to work and take care of families and other responsibilities of living, online learning allows them to earn degrees in various professional disciplines, some of which are most lucrative in today’s economy. Since these institutions acquire funding via financial aid through the federal government (Smith, 2010), and provide greater access for students who were considered by some to be vulnerable financially, constrained due to lack of time, and deemed questionable in their academic readiness in taking such an educational leap, traditional colleges and universities realized the needs that such a provision of higher education met for adult learners. Therefore, more colleges and universities across the United States started offering online courses and degree programs for their students as well.

As a former university instructor of online courses, I immediately saw the need to offer online courses since accessibility to higher education was a concern; however, I became more interested in how adult learners were actually using the technology in their classes. Because many of my students were both traditional and nontraditional, I was especially struck by the low numbers of African American students who were taking online courses. Further, I was even more curious about nontraditional students’ usage of technology since some of those students did not grow up in a digital age.

Considering my teaching context being a historically Black university, I was familiar with the oral tradition that is a strong component of African American culture (Boone, 2003) and communication. Therefore, I knew that the spoken word is not the primary communication format in online courses. Additionally, from my experience teaching, I found many of my African American students enjoyed working collaboratively. Though, the collaborative learning model is often difficult, if nonexistent, in many online courses. After all, online learning tends to be oftentimes individualistic and isolated (Vanderpool, 2009). Too, African Americans tend to prefer teacher immediacy (White, 1992), which is often not as achievable in online courses. All in all, I questioned if there was too much distance in distance learning and if such a communication format excluded learners from diverse backgrounds, including lower socioeconomic status communities.

More specifically, I seriously wondered, within this new frontier of accessibility to higher education, who is actually being left behind. With the newness of technology and how to navigate its various mechanisms, I found myself questioning if my nontraditional students, those who did not grow up in the digital age, were being excluded from acquiring a preparatory knowledge base about computers and how they are used as a main vehicle for college course delivery. I also wondered if these students could afford the technology, such as computers, Internet connections, Broadband connections, and software, required to participate in online learning. In addition to this potential kind of exclusion, I wondered about the impact of them not having the social capital or network to even know that online courses were available and further, what their benefits and disadvantages were so that they could make more informed decisions about taking online versus face-to-face courses.

While I understood that “everything is politically and economically motivated” (J.

Cooper, Personal Communication, March 25, 2005), I clearly surmised that the growth of online learning is a result of the changing economy and technological advances.

Nonetheless, there are many advantages that online learning offers students, teachers, and schools (Puzziferro & Shelton, 2008) that would also make it enticing to nontraditional learners. A major benefit of online learning for students includes 24-hour access to virtual classrooms and flexible schedules, allowing students to learn around their many responsibilities. Also, online learning students enjoy the ability to access course materials such as syllabi, notes from students, research tools, and interactive instruction. Moreover, online students also have the benefit of communicating with other students around the world through e-mail, discussion boards, and chats. Another benefit extends to students with physical challenges who are able to earn college credit without physically having to navigate a campus (Crow, 2008).

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