Edmonds, K. (2010) Understanding the Perspectives of Online Graduate Students: Implications for Educational Leaders Calgary AB: Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Calgary

Congratulations to Kelly Edmonds, who has recently successfully defended her EdD thesis at the University of Calgary. Kelly has kindly agreed to provide a short summary of her thesis.


The higher education field in North America is experiencing change impacted by globalization, evolving economies, emerging technologies, growing populations, and shifting student demographics. These conditions have led to calls for education that address market demands, is accessible, and incorporates technology. However, educational leaders must take into account the needs of an expanding and diverse student population. Therefore, the intent of this study was to explore effective leadership practices for managing online learning programs in mainstream universities. Input for this study was gained from online graduate students who provided feedback on online programs, resources, services, instruction, and instructional design. They also shared how they learned best online along with descriptions of needed support. More specifically, this study examined the characteristics, motivations, and perceptions of graduate students who were enrolled in an online academic program in a graduate division in a faculty of education at a Western Canadian university.


The conceptual framework used in this study drew on the notion that online learners in mainstream higher education institutions are not the same as traditional face-to-face students in terms of characteristics, motivations, and learning needs. As such, the assumptions made for this study were that online graduate students:

  • Have distinguishing characteristics from traditional learners
  • Possess specific motivations to engage in online learning, and
  • Due to the online learning environment, have unique needs

This doctoral study, undertaken by Kelly Edmonds during 2008 and 2009, examined 163 graduate students enrolled in online academic programs at a western Canadian university. Through the use of mixed research methods, and drawing on survey, focus group, and interview data, findings revealed the diverse views and needs of participants.


On average, participants were middle aged, female, and married. They were North American and lived in an urban or rural setting. It was over seven years since they were in a formal degree program, and they had taken more than four fully online courses. Their technical and information literacy skills were adequate enough to manage online learning. Overall, participants were very busy adults in high-end careers, with some managing online learning in their workplace. They had full lives with many life and work responsibilities that put demands on their time. Considering their demands, they still managed an average of 20 hours per week for work in each course, and their time was split between online and offline tasks. They worked online at home after dinner most nights, and on the weekend. They were self-disciplined.

Participants felt they could attain a higher degree and could adapt to new environments, such as with online learning. Logistically, they were concerned about the program’s cost and credibility. Personally, they were uncertain if they could learn online, or feared they lacked the necessary technical skills. Participants’ learning styles varied from active and socially inclined to reflective and independent. As adult learners, they needed some accommodations. For instance, they needed more choice in learning activities. Participants shared their perceptions of online learning, as well, and spoke about their need for support from faculty and staff members. They also spoke about their need for an engaging online learning environment, instructor, and activities, and asked for an online community and rich communication. Participants repeatedly asked for online learning to be designed well, and that it consider the nature of the online environment and distant learner. Overall, participants were busy and self-directed adults who wanted structured courses and programs as well as timely and available materials. They were ready to learn and needed the right environment to do so.


As a context for discussing implications, leadership issues and concerns were addressed when considering the needs and perceptions of participants. For instance, program issues addressed included the credibility and costs of online programs. As well, faculty presence, readiness, and technology levels to work in online environments were raised as an issue by participants. They also mentioned online student services as an area of concern, such as providing program information, developing students’ technology and information literacy skills, and offering various online communities. An added issue was the instructional design of online learning environments. This entailed a discussion about defining institutional specific online pedagogy, offering blended learning opportunities, assessing student learning styles, avoiding contentious learning activities (such as the overwhelming number of online postings and group work), and using course design teams. From this discussion leadership recommendations were offered, such as conducting or considering research on effective ways to deliver learning and services online. Suggestions for effectively planning, implementing, and delivering online learning were given, as well as marketing online programs. Additionally, developing good human relationships in online learning was recommended, such as working effectively with faculty and ensuring students had quality online experiences.

Dr. Kelly Edmonds’ dissertation is available on the University of Calgary Institutional Repository at: https://dspace.ucalgary.ca/handle/1880/47706 . She can be contacted at edmondsmk@shaw.ca



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