Journal of Nursing Education

Educational Innovations 

Building a Community of Scholars: One Cohort’s Experience in an Online and Distance Education Doctor of Philosophy Program

Lynnea H. Myers, MSN, RN, CPNP; Alvin D. Jeffery, MSN, RN-BC; Heather Nimmagadda, MS, APN, CPNP; Jennifer Ann Werthman, MS, MBA, NE-BC, RN; Kasey Jordan, MSN, RN



Online and distance education is becoming increasingly common in higher education. As students explore graduate programs, they are often overwhelmed with the variety of program delivery options available. For graduate students pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), a particular concern relates to building a community of scholars and how to do so through an online and distance learning program.


Through a review of literature and personal stories, this article will highlight innovative strategies utilized by a cohort of PhD students related to online and distance learning and developing a community of scholars.


PhD students developed a community of scholars using innovative strategies to communicate and collaborate.


Building a community of scholars is possible through online and distance education using simple forms of technology to connect and collaborate. [J Nurs Educ. 2015;54(11):650–654.]



Online and distance education is becoming increasingly common in higher education. As students explore graduate programs, they are often overwhelmed with the variety of program delivery options available. For graduate students pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), a particular concern relates to building a community of scholars and how to do so through an online and distance learning program.


Through a review of literature and personal stories, this article will highlight innovative strategies utilized by a cohort of PhD students related to online and distance learning and developing a community of scholars.


PhD students developed a community of scholars using innovative strategies to communicate and collaborate.


Building a community of scholars is possible through online and distance education using simple forms of technology to connect and collaborate. [J Nurs Educ. 2015;54(11):650–654.]

The following scenario describes what a typical meeting for Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students in an online program may look like. The names used in the scenario are pseudonyms.

It’s 4:00 PM on a Sunday afternoon in late fall. Slowly, the computer screens of PhD students from across the country begin to come alive. Students Adam and Laura are first to log on and, after greeting each other, talk about the weather in their respective states and what they are planning for their fall break. Student Helen logs in after dropping off her child at lacrosse practice. The discussion begins shifting to course projects assigned for that week. As students Jessica and Kate log on, the conversations expand to challenging concepts encountered in the assigned readings for the week, tips on how to use the new statistical software, effective time management strategies, and the possibility of developing a manuscript together to learn about the publication process. An hour later, the students part ways in the virtual community, agreeing to meet online again the following Sunday.


The paradigm shift in how PhD in Nursing Science programs are delivered has reached a critical mass. For post-master’s students obtaining a research-focused doctorate, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (Fang, Li, & Bednash, 2014) found that 96 (72.7%) of 132 programs provide doctoral course-work, at least to some extent, in an online format. This has created new challenges and opportunities for students to develop a community of scholars (COS). In their position statement, Indicators of Quality in Research-Focused Doctoral Programs in Nursing, the AACN (2001) identified student collaboration within nursing and other disciplines as a key indicator of quality. Developing a COS is an essential component of professional development while a student pursues a PhD and is critical to one’s future career development as a researcher, scholar, and academician (Conn et al., 2014).

With many schools of nursing offering online and distance education formats for doctoral degrees (Mancuso-Murphy, 2007), it is imperative that students use technology and other social media resources to develop their COS. The current article reviews current trends in online and distance education and highlights innovative strategies used by a cohort of PhD students at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, utilizing technology, social media, and face-to-face contact to develop a COS. The benefits of a COS can extend beyond students to the faculty members who may later collaborate with students after graduation as these novice scholars are beginning their programs of research.

Current Trends in Online Education

Pym (1992) defined the hallmark of distance education as the teacher and student in separate geographic locations: “Simply put, distance education can be viewed as a set of teaching and learning strategies for connecting people who have learning needs with the resources required to meet those needs” (p. 384). Online and distance education programs seek to combine the flexibility of working from home with the rigor of classroom education and training by combining any method of online and in-person instruction (Martyn, 2003).

Growing participation in online education programs make the creation of a healthy online and distance learning environment a high priority. The unique nature of online and distance learning sometimes brings challenges in maintaining a sense of community among participants. Nursing and health care students have reported difficulty in the online and distance learning environment due to trouble with group commitment and finding adequate time to participate (Moule, Ward, & Lockyer, 2010; Place, MacLeod, John, Adamack, & Lindsey, 2012). Doctoral online and distance learning students have reported feeling distant from peers and mentors (Terrell, Snyder, Dringus, & Maddrey (2012). A study by Buxton and De Muth (2013) indicates that online and distance learning pharmacy students in a continuing education course appear to be similarly satisfied with the presentation methods, confidence in learning content, and a sense of community, but less satisfied with meeting learning objectives, presentation value, presenter interest, and commercial interests. Murdock and Williams (2011) reported that local students and online and distance learning students indicated no significant difference in how they perceived learning communities in an introductory counseling course with carefully planned instructional activities. The evidence suggests that online and distance learners can experience the benefits of a rewarding communal atmosphere.

Several studies have also explored factors that positively influence the development of a COS and satisfaction with the learning environment (Borup, West, & Graham, 2012; Cain & Policastri, 2011; Curran, Fleet, & Kirby 2010; King, Greidanus, Carbonaro, Drummond, & Patterson, 2009; Phillips, Shaw, Sullivan, & Johnson, 2010; Schmidt & Stewart, 2009; Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012; Tower, Latimer, & Hewitt, 2013). Factors identified from those studies can be categorized pedagogically as (a) interactive teaching strategies, (b) variety in course delivery methods, and (c) professional socialization via technology.

Interactive Teaching Strategies

Certain types of instructor-facilitated interactions, including introductions, group projects, relating of personal stories, class discussions, and sharing resources, have been found to be predictive of a sense of community in online and distance graduate courses (Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012). Multiple teaching–learning formats that target different types of learners (visual, aural, read-and-write, kinesthetic; VARK, 2015) can be effectively achieved in the online and distance learning environment.

Course Delivery Methods

Methods of course delivery appear to strongly influence the development of a sense of community and satisfaction (Borup et al., 2012; Curran et al., 2010). Curran et al. (2010) reported that students receiving continuing medical education credit through an Internet-based course that included scheduled start and stop dates reported higher satisfaction, confidence, and knowledge than students who could start and stop at any time. Students participating in a course delivered through a video-based method reported that the video communication made instructors feel more present and that the resulting relationships were comparable to face-to-face courses; however, cohesion among peers was not as strongly affected (Borup et al., 2012). Options for teaching–learning in the online and distance education include (Table):

  • Online technologies that allow for synchronous (i.e., live, or real-time) contact between students and faculty and more traditional pedagogical methods used in a classroom setting, including capabilities for presentations, discussions, and more.
  • Course management systems that allow for asynchronous (i.e., not real-time) contact between students and faculty through online assignment submissions, weblog (blog) postings, prerecorded lectures, and more.
  • Social media sites that allow for more informal socialization among students that would normally occur in the classroom learning environment (e.g., pictures from recent travel, discussion on recent accomplishments, family updates).
Technology Options and Descriptions


Technology Options and Descriptions

Socialization via Technology

Social media has also been explored as a mechanism to facilitate community and satisfaction in online and distance education. Facebook® has been reported to provide an informal environment that allows pharmacy students to engage with diverse topics and experts when offered extra-credit opportunities (Cain & Policastri, 2011). Tower et al. (2013) found that students participating in an optional Facebook group reported feeling more engaged with peers and better prepared for examinations. A custom social network promoted access to course information and joining learning communities efficiently (King et al., 2009). Virtual environments, such as Second Life®, have been discussed as strategies to engage students in clinical skills and active learning in the online and distance environment (Phillips et al., 2010; Schmidt & Stewart, 2009). Technology as a mechanism for socialization is a factor of particular interest for the authors in developing a COS.

With multiple strategies available for students to develop a COS, it is possible that students can become overwhelmed with the variety of formats for interactive teaching, course delivery, and professional socialization. When possible, students work together as a group to identify formats that work best for the group to develop the COS.

The Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Innovation

The authors of this article are currently enrolled in an online and distance education curriculum. The program is a hybrid platform where synchronous, asynchronous, and face-to-face methods are used, with the primary focus being synchronous methods for online and distance learning. The authors have used a variety of innovative methods to develop a COS, including group meetings using live video teleconferencing, e-mail correspondence, text messaging, social networking group pages, and in-person socializing. Recognizing the importance of developing a COS for support while in a PhD program, the current authors used technology to engage with each other in what otherwise would be chance encounters in a PhD program with a more traditional, in-person format. The authors independently created these methods of interaction and actively communicate with each other using these methods on a daily or weekly basis throughout each semester. Prior to the use of these methods, the students informally discussed the formats that seemed to work best for interaction. In the Table, the authors detail online and distance technologies utilized and the advantages and disadvantages to their use. Videoconferencing technology allows participants to see and hear each other, as well as to often share documents through presentation features (but as with all technology, it has limitations and glitches that can make interaction difficult at times). Course management systems provide an online space for course content, but they do not provide the benefits of real-time feedback from classmates and faculty. Finally, social media sites allow for informal interaction among students but are limited in terms of privacy of information shared, especially in comparison with face-to-face interactions.

Case Study: Lived Experience of This Community of Scholars

The following case study is presented from the authors’ perspective within the community of inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), which includes three major components: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. The three components converge to create what is termed the educational experience. This framework represents both the contributions of the student and the teacher to the educational experience.

More than 1 year ago, the authors gathered together (social presence) nervously in a classroom at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, about to embark on their journey toward a PhD in Nursing Science degree. These students came from all over the country and worked in positions ranging from full-time nurse educators in practice and academia to nursing administrators. They joined together with the ultimate goal of advancing nursing research as future scholars. As the students gave their introductions, the COS slowly began to develop, as everyone was able to hear and reflect on each others’ career trajectories to date and proposed research interests (cognitive presence). As a hybrid PhD program with online and distance learning and in-person intensives, the students learned throughout that first week of classes how they would be engaging with both each other and faculty through interactive, multimedia platforms (teaching presence). The students even named a classmate the group’s “social director” to provide social interactions outside of the classroom setting, especially during in-person intensive sessions.

After their initial in-person meeting, the students made a commitment to gather online via their electronic classroom platform (i.e., Scopia®) to engage in scholarly dialogue and reflection related to their research interests. The sessions also provided an opportunity to discuss normal challenges and concerns related to being a PhD student, as well as potential suggestions and solutions. The COS began to develop even more formally as the students engaged in scholarly discussions and debates during online class sessions and were challenged to think critically by their professors. Some of these scholarly discussions even continued into evenings and weekends, when students met informally, further strengthening the scholarly development of the students.

On the basis of the success of their initial interactions, both in person and online, students have continued to use the Scopia platform for meetings, the social networking sites (i.e., Facebook) for posting life updates, and telephone calls and in-person meetings to discuss day-to-day concerns and questions. For example, just as students meet face-to-face before an in-person class, the students connect via online methods or telephone before and after class periods. The commitment of the group to developing a community of scholars from the beginning of the program was critical to its success and, although it required an initial investment of time and energy on the part of the students, it has helped them to become a cohesive and supportive group of colleagues.

Developing a community of scholars has expanded beyond just classmates. Students have been able to use the networking skills developed through their interactions with each other to reach out to faculty, to experts in their respective fields of interest, and to other professionals who can provide guidance, mentorship, and support during the students’ journeys to a PhD degree. Expanding the community of scholars has been critical to this group’s growing success as future researchers.

Outcomes and Recommendations for Future Research

Anecdotally, the authors enthusiastically recommend leveraging the aforementioned technologies to enhance socialization and development of a COS among online and distance students. As a cohort of students, the authors found videoconference systems and text messaging to be the most effective forms to collaborate as a COS. As one student summarized:

Becoming familiar and connected with fellow students and faculty in a traditional classroom setting contributes to and enhances the human experience of learning and growing at all levels of education. The interactive dialogues and synergy that occur in meaningful and often spontaneous discussions among classmates and faculty in a classroom setting provide the foundation to grow and develop as individuals and as a collegial scholarly network of future researchers. With the personal commitment of those involved, we have found a combination that enables this to occur. The incorporation of both distance and in-person learning modalities has provided an opportunity to reap the benefits of both traditional and distance learning in doctoral studies. Through initial face-to-face class and networking opportunities, the group has an opportunity to form and norm [i.e., to gather together and develop norms as a group]—personalities and personal information are shared [and] appreciation and respect for each other develops and becomes the foundation of collaborative, professional relationships and friendships that will carry the cohort on to future careers and collaborations in the decades to come, which will ultimately impact the future of nursing.

However, implementation of creative strategies for building a COS need not be limited to PhD students; there is a surge in the creation of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs, and many of these use online and distance formats (Dunbar-Jacob, Nativio, & Khalil, 2013) that could benefit from this heightened degree of collegial engagement. In addition, those living in international and rural or remote locales may be able to obtain access to academic programs, mentors, and networks that had been unavailable to them previously.

At the writing of this article, a literature review revealed no studies to demonstrate objective measures of the benefit of online and distance learning to nursing students or faculty. Descriptive studies could be developed with relative ease, given the captive audience of online and distance nursing doctoral students. Multisite surveys and focus groups could serve to compare and contrast the development of a COS among the following groups: (a) traditional face-to-face, (b) distance, synchronous programs, and (c) distance, asynchronous programs. Exploring what works, what does not, and suggestions for improvement could inform experimental studies.

Experimental methods should be used to determine whether these enhanced communication strategies, using innovative methods such as those described in this article, provide actual benefit. Placing doctoral nursing online and distance students into intervention and control groups, where the intervention group is scheduled for more synchronous time outside of instructor-facilitated events, may be a relatively simple design to assess potential advantages. Dependent variables could include (a) grade point average, (b) time needed to complete coursework and entire program, (c) percentage of students with an “all-but-dissertation” status, (d) surveys to assess program satisfaction and school–life balance, and (e) the impact of the virtual COS on careers as researchers, scholars, and academicians. If conducted, these proposed studies could assist in the augmentation of best practices in academia, especially given the increased prevalence of nontraditional, online and distance approaches to education.

Studies could also examine the longitudinal impact of these virtual COS on success after graduation as a researcher, scholar, or academician. Such studies could include demographic information related to the COS and could examine whether doctoral nursing students participating in online and distance programs are more likely to engage in collaborative projects with colleagues and peers in more disparate locations through the use of technology as a result of the skills developed through participation in a virtual COS.


Online and distance learning has become a growing component of higher education, and the need to develop a community of scholars who can collaborate and support each other is critical. The strategies outlined in this article provide innovative ways to develop a community of scholars within a PhD program and suggestions for future research pertinent to this type of learning.


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Technology Options and Descriptions

TechnologyDescriptionAdvantages and DisadvantagesStudent Comments
Video conference system (e.g., Scopia Desktop©, Skype©, Lync©, FaceTime©)

Allows users to access virtual conference rooms from their personal computer

Users can see and hear each other in real time while also sharing the content of their computer screens if they desire

Face-to-face communication with instructors and other students

Some options require a subscription fee and high-speed reliable Internet connection

Occasional connection problems

“Videoconferencing makes me feel like everyone is so much closer than they actually are. I think the weekly sessions we have with just us students has resulted in my classmates being some of my best friends.”

“The video software has been extremely helpful in allowing us to bond as a group. I especially appreciate that they have allowed us our own ‘space’ for meeting.”

“Classmates and faculty are accessible in more ways and at more times than my past experiences in traditional in-person courses and programs.”

“I feel like I am in the classroom. You have a direct line of communication with your instructor.”

Course management systems (e.g., Blackboard©, Moodle©)

Online space for storing course content, quizzes, discussion boards, and other academic tools

Some options require a subscription fee

Not as beneficial as videoconferencing in making students feel connected

Unable to receive real-time feedback

“Using discussion boards for some discussions has allowed more time to formulate my thoughts and provide richer responses to my classmates.”

“I have used discussion boards since my undergrad. I consider them a standard part of a class, whether distance-based or in person.”

“The use of discussion boards as one of multiple technology-based educational modalities has enriched my experience. I also appreciate that this is not the main method of communication and coursework.”

“It is a helpful and organized platform. I can return to review posted information to study for finals, and it makes submitting assignments easy and stress free.”

Social media (e.g., Facebook ©, Twitter©)

Permits interaction among students outside of the academic setting, whereby more personal information can be shared

No subscription fee

Allows users to participate in non-academic discussions that are important for professional networking and building long-lasting relationships

Privacy is limited

“I love that we can share photos of our face-to-face time together or even encouraging messages for those difficult times in the semester.”

“Social media provides a convenient outlet to be light-hearted about school.”

“I enjoy the use of social media to communicate relevant material along side humorous and personal information.”

“It keeps students in contact with each other outside of the classroom.”


Ms. Myers is a PhD student, Ms. Nimmagadda is a PhD student, Ms. Werthman is a PhD student, and Ms. Jordan is a PhD student, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, Nashville, Tennessee; and Mr. Jeffery is Education Consultant, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

The authors thank the faculty and staff of the PhD program at Vanderbilt University, especially Drs. Melanie Lutenbacher, Ann Minnick, and Linda Norman, who were instrumental in the review of the manuscript, and Irene Mckirgan, who helped with data references. They also thank additional classmates who are part of the community of scholars (Teofanes Natavio and Jennifer Barut).

Address correspondence to Lynnea Myers, MSN, RN, CPNP, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, 800 College Avenue West, St. Peter, MN 56082; e-mail:

Received: June 24, 2015
Accepted: July 08, 2015



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