Academic journal article Community College Review

Delicate Engagement: The Lived Experience of Community College Students Enrolled in High-Risk Online Courses

Academic journal article Community College Review

Delicate Engagement: The Lived Experience of Community College Students Enrolled in High-Risk Online Courses

Article excerpt

This article reports the findings of a phenomenological study that examined the lived experience of community college students enrolled in high-risk online courses (HRCs) at a community college in the American Southeast. HRCs were defined as college courses with withdrawal or failure rates of 30% or more. In-depth interviews were conducted with 13 students enrolled in four different HRCs. Isolation, academic challenge, ownership, and acquiescence emerged as structural themes that framed the experience of participants. These structural themes intermingled in discrete ways that led to the survival or surrender of these HRC participants and formed the essence of the phenomenon that is referred to as delicate engagement, which speaks to the vulnerable threads of academic and social involvement that permeated the HRC student experience.

Keywords: online courses, student success, phenomenology

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Nationwide, the number of students enrolled in online courses has grown at a rapid rate. Student enrollment from the fall of 2004 to the fall of 2005 increased from 2.3 million to nearly 3.2 million (Allen & Seaman, 2006). The 2005 online enrollment represented 17% of all higher education students. Allen and Seaman (2006) found that 96% of all higher education public institutions provided opportunities for online learners. Associate's degree-granting institutions, such as community colleges, enrolled more than half of all online learners.

Online courses provide many community college students with new opportunities to participate in postsecondary education (Cox, 2005; Dalziel, 2003; Kozeracki, 1999; Young, 2008). Online courses are especially attractive to many community college students because work and family obligations limit attendance in traditional synchronous, on-campus classes. Some students enroll in online courses to expand their schedule of classes or limit the cost of commuting. Health care workers, fire fighters, and police officers find online learning compatible with their dynamic shift schedules. In addition, parents of small children can reduce child care expenditures by taking online classes.

As online learning options expand, however, these new opportunities are accompanied by higher attrition rates (Berge & Mrozowski, 2001; Carr, 2000). Carr's (2000) inquiry into online learning at several community colleges indicated that student attrition increases when the instructor and the student are in different locations. Studies of online student attrition and persistence conducted at individual community colleges confirm Carr's findings, reporting dropout rates that are 15% to 50% higher in online classes than in the same synchronous face-to-face options (Crabtree, 2000; Kennedy, 2001; Pedone, 2003; York, 2003). As community colleges continue to expand opportunities for students through online learning, it is essential to understand why large numbers of these students withdraw or fail these courses.

This article reports on a qualitative study that used the phenomenological method to examine the lived experiences of students enrolled in challenging online courses at a community college in the American Southeast. Our main objective was to determine if participants in such online courses shared a common experience that superseded their individual successes or failures. We discuss our study in the following manner. First, we briefly review the relevant literature on community college online learners. Second, we explain our research method, phenomenology, and discuss data collection and analysis procedures. Third, we present and interpret our findings in a section that outlines four structural themes that describe the experiences reported by our student participants. We then describe and explain the essence of the phenomenon that we refer to as a "delicate engagement". Finally, we close with a summary and recommendations for practice and research.

Literature Review

The literature regarding distance education at the community college has confirmed its rapid growth. …

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