This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

A Mixed-Methods Study: Understanding Student Ties in a Distance Learning Educational Leadership Cohort




Slear, Susan

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Education Foundation, Leadership, and Technology

Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



With instructional delivery for education changing at an increasing rate from the traditional face-to-face classes to distance learning and hybrid formats, educators must stay current with best practices. Cohorts, which have been an essential part of effective leadership preparation programs in traditional settings (Davis, 2016; Donmoyer et al., 2012), can help foster student engagement and create supportive environments (Bista & Cox, 2014; Pemberton & Akkery, 2010) in distance learning contexts. The purpose of this study was to explore how doctoral students experience social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) in a distance learning educational leadership cohort. The mixed-methods explanatory sequential case study (Creswell & Plano-Clark, 2018) was a two-phase design that allowed the researcher to examine student interactions and the development of relationships in both breadth and depth. Data collection from multiple sources included surveys and discussion thread transcripts in the first phase followed by group text messages and interviews in the second phase. Descriptive statistics and visualizations were generated using social network analysis (Borgatti et al., 2018). With relationships being the focus, the researcher explored the individual’s experience while getting a picture the whole cohort from different perspectives (Knapp, 2017). Bounded by time and location, the study focused on the first-semester experience of thirteen doctoral students at a large public university in the south. Findings from this study revealed that the strength of ties in the expressive network (personal relationships) was not a predictor of the strength of ties in the instrumental network (academic engagement). This finding suggests that cohort members were just as likely to engage academically with cohort members outside their expressive network, which allowed for exposure to diverse opinions and perspectives. The qualitative results in the second phase expanded upon the quantitative results. Three themes emerged from the participants’ stories told during six interviews. Each cohort member shared how important it was to develop relationships within the cohort, how this was their support system, and how they felt it was the program structure that allowed for opportunities to develop as a cohort. Strategies that foster the development of social presence were identified and could be used to inform future distance learning cohort programs.