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What about online doctoral students? A review of e-Learning literature

By Kristina McGaha, Diana Hart, Wendy Aoki / April 2020

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Online learning, or distance learning, continues to increase in relevance and significance for higher education. A recent Babson Survey noted that while overall enrollment in higher education has steadily dropped in the past five years, distance learning enrollment continues to grow—now comprising about 30 percent of total student enrollment in higher education for the United States (Allen and Seaman, 2016). It is important for higher education institutions to either improve understanding of the distance learning student or incorporate distance learning strategy into their programs. Exploring specialized groups or subgroups of distance learning students may also be beneficial to improving distance learning research, enrollment, and performance (Allen and Seaman, 2014). Unfortunately, certain subgroups, like online doctoral students, remain underserved in the literature. Understanding online doctoral student perspectives, beliefs, and desires may allow for institutions to adapt to current strategies for longer-term sustainability (Dunn and Rakes, 2015). This literature review will highlight more prevalent works in e-learning research, describe themes in the literature related to e-learning, and identify areas in which further research is needed—specifically regarding online doctoral students.

Review of the Literature

The literature review was conducted using works published between 2014 and 2019. Using four primary search channels (ProQuest, EBSCoHost, SAGE, and Taylor and Francis), the researchers identified 89 journal articles that addressed topics in higher education, online education, or doctoral education. The total number of journal articles was reduced to conduct a more thorough review of the available literature. Reduction strategy included removing journal articles that 1) were no longer in publication (three journals had published their final volumes in 2018), 2) reported an impact factor of less than 1.0 on Scopus or Reuter’s scales (resulting in the removal of 24 journal articles), and 3) possessed too narrow a scope of focus (the researchers determined 10 journal articles had too narrow scope for the literature review). There were 52 total journal articles available for review after the reduction strategies. Boolean key word search methods were used to identify literature within these publications. The key words used were: “online,” “online doctoral,” “postdoc,” “postdoc success,” “distance learning,” and “e-learning.” Combinations of key words (ex: “e-learning AND postdoc”) were also used as part of the search method. The resulting number of search query results were tabulated and tracked for each journal article. Table 1 is an example of such tabulation using the publication Distance Education.

Table 1. Search inquiry results by key word from 2014-2019 within Distance Education, illustrating results yielded before and after reduction strategy was applied.

Key Word Input

Results Yielded Before Reduction

Results After Reduction

Online doctoral



Postdoc AND online



Postdoc success



Distance learning AND postdoc



e-learning AND postdoc




Some of the articles identified were published on more than one database or were removed because they were more editorial in nature (like a book review) (Covington, 2018). From the search query of the 52 journal articles, a total of 46 unique, works were identified that related specifically to the online doctoral student, or contained discussion relevant to online programs and graduate programs. These studies were reviewed by all researchers, and themes were developed based on qualitative content analysis techniques.

Domestic versus global characteristics of online doctoral programs

Research shows that online doctoral programs in the United States have significant differences in those in other parts of the world. The major difference between domestic and global online doctoral programs is the requirement of formal coursework. Programs in the United States start with coursework and end the process with a dissertation. Programs in Europe and the United Kingdom are research-based and place focus on the research with the assumption that knowledge is learned through the Master’s program and applied to dissertation on the doctoral level (Ames et al. 2018). Programs in Australia, Iceland, and China have recently seen a change to the program that requires field experience and research (Ames et al. 2018). Emphasis on philosophical foundations or practice-based learning appears to vary based on the geographic location of the institution. The recent increase in practitioner-based degrees (as opposed to PhDs) being offered online has helped to popularize the modality. Online doctoral programs offered in (not by) the United States have shown a recent increase in international student enrollment based on the practitioner-based models (Crosta, Manokone, and Gray, 2016).

Themes in the Literature

The literature was reviewed for themes using qualitative content analysis techniques. The researchers performed a traditional read/re-read approach, a fairly common analytical tactic in thematic analysis (Evers, 2016). The researchers individually identified various content and themes that were significant. Individual lists of significant statements and themes were discussed and the consensus was reached on which particular themes were the most prevalent in the literature. Once consensus was obtained, the researchers had time to review literature again to consistently apply the thematic map. Figure 1 is a visual representation of the thematic map that was developed during the literature review, including the categorization of all 46 articles. The two over-arching themes of online program designs and the challenges of online doctoral research envelop the secondary themes of e-learning, student-centered models, lacking dissemination, lacking investigation. Defining elements of the sub-themes included the anxiety and motivations of e-learning, pedagogical techniques, analysis of online learning at the institutional and course level, and finally, the lack of investigation on the online doctoral cohort.

Figure 1. Visual representation of thematic map identified in a literature review of all 46 articles.

(Note: All 46 sources have been included as works cited for this article.)

[click to enlarge]

Anxiety/motivation in e-learning

One of the issues that happen when students begin to use e-learning is that many become anxious about the difficulty of the program (Su and Waugh, 2018) or the level of their own competence (Skakniand Alpine, 2017). Although many students have used computers in the past, it seems that about one third of students who participate in all types of e-learning feel anxious about taking courses (Kira, Nebebe, and Saadé, 2018). Most of the anxiety seems to come from taking the course itself because it is a new way to use technology (Kira et al. 2018). Information and communication technology (ICT) models identify that anxiety at the student level can include tech support issues, bandwidth/accessibility, and infrastructure of the institution offering the program (Gutiérrez-Santiuste et al. 2015). In the study by Kira et al. some students reported that they had negative feelings while taking these classes, but that the anxiety did not stop them from feeling satisfied with the course. Indeed, it is their motivation to continue that can supersede such initial stages of anxiety.

Van der Weijden et al. (2016) noted that pursuing a doctorate as a means to fulfill a career path was a primary source of motivation. Increased awareness of the unique challenges of the online doctoral cohort has also helped to improve online students’ sense of identity while pursuing a doctorate (Rasmussen, 2018).

Many teachers are also reluctant to teach in e-learning environments because they do not understand all of the nuances of online pedagogy, or there may be challenges with converting a face-to-face classroom to the online platform (Ruggiero and Boehm, 2015). Professors and students alike have expressed concerns about asynchronous communication being less effective or difficult to navigate. However, the literature has reported opposing findings to this assumption. Lindsey and Rice (2015) conducted a large cross-sectional study of online students which showed that a student enrolled in more online courses corresponded to higher levels of emotional intelligence—suggesting that perhaps online students and teachers are better at exhibiting communication skills that can reduce such anxiety about asynchronous classrooms. They also implied that distance learning may actually allow for richer, thought-based discussion (as compared to the physical classroom where dialog is restricted by the length of the class).  

Pedagogy in e-learning

Multiple e-learning pedagogical approaches have been tested, investigated, and suggested in the literature. Gruber (2015) asserted that online learning environments needed an increase in student-centered pedagogies; rooting the online learning experience in social constructionism and transformative epistemologies. Waugh and Su (2016) referenced Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory as the vehicle by which facilitators can have the most effective “social presence” in virtual settings. Kennedy (2018) proposed a conceptual model of connectedness that integrated the pedagogical tools of student motivation, learning techniques, and student identity– cultivating a student’s esteem through assimilation or belonging. McWhorter, Delello, and Roberts (2016) stated that service learning, similar to service leadership, can be a useful teaching method to motivate and engage online students. It is difficult to compare different approaches as each context is unique, but the literature generally summarizes that effective online pedagogy (1) allows for both teacher and student to embrace the virtual environment and explore it freely; (2) facilitates rich discussion of topics through the sharing of experiences and insights; and (3) be adaptable to the ever-changing needs and dynamics of each student cohort (Coker, 2018; Crosta et al. 2016; Englund, Olofsson and Price, 2018; Orellana et al. 2016).

Action research and the testing of online models also are common in the literature. Below are two examples of newly developed online programs:

  • Kitchens and Barker (2016) provided research collaborations between academic librarians and professors. Kitchens and Barker found that there was a disconnect between the classroom and research once students entered the library. To address the disconnect, Kitchens and Barker suggested that by the professor and academic librarian collaborating on projects students could have a better understanding of the research skills needed for future study. A project was created that took over two months and included workshops, online resources, face-to-face instruction, and access to the professor and academic librarian as needed. Students learned the basic skills of collaboration, leadership, and how to conduct research.
  • Ruggiero and Boehm (2015) researched ways that professors could successfully make the transition from conducting lectures in the classroom to becoming e-learning facilitators. A module was created to help professors make the transition easier. Ruggiero and Boehm noticed that professors needed more than technological skills to become e-learning facilitators. The module included 10 weeks of topics about e-learning, the psychology of learning, virtual designs, multimedia process, and more; the 10 weeks ended with a presentation by the professors. The results of the study provided Ruggiero and Boehm with an understanding of the needs of these professors and created more confident professors who became online advocates.

Student-centered models: institution-level

There seemed to be many ways that researchers are looking at e-learning. One trend is to find different ways of providing e-learning to meet the needs of different types of students from an institutional-level. The literature explored the technology, structure, and support programs of institutions and discussed their efficacy in meeting student needs. However, there was little description in the literature about the design and hierarchy of these institution-level structures. The researchers surmised that this was most likely due to 1) the scope of the research not including a detailing of the institutional program design, and 2) the competitive nature of higher educational programs limiting how much program information is openly shared.

Arndt (2014) researched the concept of ubiquitous computing. This term was defined as creating “ambient intelligence” embedded in different devices to provide “continuous, unobtrusive, and reliable connectivity and computation while performing value-added services” (Arndt, 2014, p. 347) to students in different situations. Ubiquitous computing takes into consideration the different environmental changes that may occur during the use of equipment by finding different sensors inside devices that can be used to adjust the learning environment for individual students. For example, sensors on a cell phone such as the GPS, microphones, and cameras could be linked to learner profiles inside a class to organize study time around a student’s schedule. The amount of time a student had (e.g. 20 minutes on a break) could be matched with snippets of material that would fit the time allotted. However, more holistic, community-based approaches were also discussed in the articles reviewed. Kennedy (2018) described online leaning institutions as “personal learning networks;” and Luhrs and McAnally-Salas (2016) used social networking analysis as a means to measure online learning models.

As it applied to online doctoral students, how an institution framed its policies and programs appeared to be significant. Rockinson-Szapkiw et al. (2016) described online graduate programs as a community of inquiry (CoI), while Hancock (2019) posited the practice-based online doctoral student is more accurately a member of a community of practice (CoP). Whichever lens in which an institution framed its program design, it was generally applicable that the online learning program needed to be a computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) environment (Luhrs and McAnally-Salas, 2016). Challenges of online doctoral identity (both in academia and beyond) were also addressed in the literature. International or foreign exchange students, for example, can experience a process called othering—where they do not identify or fit in with peers, making acquiring support and resources difficult (Laufer, 2018).

There were also studies that suggested changes were needed in the vetting process, both in helping to better identify successful online students and to describe the motivations for students to enroll in a particular program. Ward and Brennan (2018) proposed a student-doctoral education fit analytic model to characterize strong doctoral learners, although this did not differentiate between physical or online students. Dunn and Rakes (2015) cautioned that higher education institutions can falsely assume that because a student has reached the graduate/post-graduate level, then they are competent and capable to assume the requirements of a doctoral degree. This misplaced assumption is complicated further when the degree program is online.

Student-centered models: course-level

Separate from pedagogical approaches in the online classroom, other course-levels models have been explored in the literature. Most predominantly, the cultivation and encouragement of a social network has been investigated for its ability to socialize students and faculty (Tauginiene and Kalinauskaite, 2018; Waugh and Su, 2016), promote interrelatedness/connectedness (Lynch, Salikhova, and Salikhova, 2018), and improve student perceptions/communication (Ames et al. 2018).

Many institutions have created additional online workspaces separate yet connected to the online classroom. These workspaces have been used for social, administrative, or functional/coursework purposes. Huang and Liaw (2018) discussed the implications of using virtual reality (VR) technology as an innovation to online learning environs. A more recent trend is the inclusion of a social media presence for alumni groups and the peer-to-peer mentorship of students. Luong and O’Brien (2018) found that since telecommunication connects the student to all other resources, that developing an official online learning community was important for distance learning programs.

A secondary thread of course-level online learning research included the type of communication strategies employed by faculty and students. Lumbreras and Rupley (2017) explained that online students learn better when the communication from the classroom is effective, rigorous, relevant, and timely.

Challenge of online doctoral programs: lacking distinction

Even though the online doctoral cohort was the target focus of the literature review, the researchers had difficulty finding investigations where this cohort was also the target population. As a result, the researchers had to find more generalized research material about online programs and graduate programs to conduct a more extensive review. This is perhaps because the literature does not fully distinguish 1) the doctoral student from the online doctoral student (Hancock, 2019; Kim et al. 2015; Orellana et al. 2016; Perera-Diltz and Sauerheber, 2017; Skakni and Alpine, 2017; Skakni, 2018; van der Weijden et al. 2016), 2) the online student from the online doctoral student (Bozurkt et al. 2015; Gruber, 2015; Huang and Liaw, 2018; Luhrs and McAnnally-Salas, 2016; McWhorter et al. 2016; Rasmussen, 2018), or 3) the online graduate (Master’s) student from the online doctoral student (Holzweiss et al. 2014; Lumbreras and Rupley, 2017; Su and Waugh, 2018; Waugh and Su, 2016). Certain studies highlighted subgroups of the doctoral community, but were typically grouped based on an area of study (Fulton et al. 2018), or nationality (Crosta et al. 2016; Mahmodi and Ebrahimzade, 2015). However, the literature demonstrated cursory discussion of the online doctoral attrition rate, program design, and enrollment/accessibility of programs (George, Soclarides, and Lubienski, 2018; Waugh and Su, 2016). Linking the completion of doctoral-level degrees to successful employment in academia was found to be a consistent trend in the literature (Ramakrishnan et al. 2016), but this also lacked distinguishing on-ground from online doctoral candidates. Admittedly, the existence of an online doctoral cohort is comparatively new—but it is for this reason that the literature has argued the necessity to explore online doctoral students further.       

Challenge of online doctoral programs: lacking investigation

While clear differentiation was lacking in the review of the literature, the articles analyzed contained many recommendations for online doctoral research. This is perhaps suggestive that contemporary researchers in the field have also acknowledged the need for further investigation of online doctoral programs and students. The recommendations consisted of a multitude of inquiry topics including cohort creation (Wolfe, Nelson, and Seamster, 2018), academic social networks (Tauginiene and Kalinauskaite, 2018), international online students (Crosta et al. 2016), and motivation to pursue a doctoral-level degree (Skakni, 2018). The recommended type of research or methodology also varied throughout the literature. Kennedy (2018) proposed that researchers needed to employ design-based research of online doctoral programs; whereas Lukenchuk (2016) argued for more reflexive research, and Englund, Olofsson, and Price (2018) advised for more holistic inquiry methods. Waugh and Su (2016) suggested that research into matriculation rates of online doctoral students was also needed. Specific traits of online doctoral students such as age, gender, cultural identity, and prior knowledge/experience were explicitly identified in the literature for future research (Gutierrez-Santiuse, Gamiz-Sanchez, and Gutierrez-Perez, 2015; Hancock, 2019; Rasmussen, 2018). To explain it succinctly: “far more research is needed to understand [the] online graduate student population” (Dunn and Rakes, 2015, p. 18).


Scholars and practitioners alike have made great strides in the research and understanding of e-learning, but there is still room for exploration. More specialized subgroups, like online doctoral students, have not been fully acknowledged in the literature, creating a knowledge gap. For example, researchers have not examined the characteristics a student possesses which makes them more likely to complete an online doctorate. There is also limited discussion about the transition that occurs post-completion of an online doctoral program (Fulton et al. 2018). The literature included qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods studies; similar approaches and instrumentation could be applied specifically to the online doctoral community. The potential benefits to researching this cohort are the same as the potential benefits of understanding the greater student body; namely, improved enrollments, decreased attrition, and higher quality educational experiences.


The authors would like to acknowledge the late Dr. Diana Hart's work on this project. This was the final study she was able to conduct, and we are both humbled and honor to be part of her journey. Her previous works can be retrieved by contacting the University of Phoenix.


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About the Authors

Dr. Kristina K. McGaha began researching generational trends five years ago at the beginning of her doctoral journey. In that time, she has presented research on Generation Z internationally for academic conferences and organizations. She holds a doctorate of management in organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix. She also holds a master’s of business administration from the University of Phoenix and a bachelor’s of arts in linguistics from the University of Arizona. She currently is an Alumni Research Fellow at the University of Phoenix.

Dr. Diana Hart was an Alumni Research Fellow at the University of Phoenix. She was an educator, public speaker, and consultant on diversity. She earned her doctorate in education with an emphasis in leadership from the University of Phoenix 

Dr. Wendy Aoki is an Alumni Research Fellow at the University of Phoenix.

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