First Advisor

Williams, Mia Kim

Second Advisor

Kyser, Christine D.

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Date Created


Embargo Date



This research investigated the learning environment and social setting of a distance graduate higher education program. An embedded mixed methods design with a focus on qualitative research involving both faculty and students was employed. The methodology consisted of a multiple case study and cross-sectional survey completed by 22 students and three faculty. The research explored the learning space, who the stake holders are, how the space is defined, and how the space is utilized. The creation of tangible visualizations allowed for an alternate perspective and enlightened insight into the distance learning space. An affinity space lens was applied in examination of the learning space to establish if affinity spaces can be aligned with higher education. Affinity spaces are effective learning environments that are physical or virtual places where individuals with a shared interest gather to facilitate learning, gain collective intelligence, and produce artifacts related to a joint enterprise (Gee, 2005). Data showed that learning is achieved through engagement in all facets of the learning space; including the formal learning management system created by the instructor and all ancillary spaces generated by students. A focus on participants and the creation of community within the space is essential and realized through collaboration, shared interest, interaction, and support. Future research involving both undergraduate and master higher education students; as well as students completing non-cohort online programs could elicit additional knowledge of the distance environment. Also, research on the course shells would garner additional information regarding the design of the course and how the learning management system is being utilized in the course. With increased awareness of the online learning space, educators can better understand how to create virtual classrooms that are most beneficial to online learners and advance the distance experience for this unique population.


Adult Education, Affinity Spaces, Distance Learning, Higher Education, Learning Communities, Online Education


173 pages

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Copyright is held by the author.