Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy


Adult & Higher Education

Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Kathleen Haywood, PhD


Dr. John Henschke

Dr. E Paulette-Savage

Dr. Cheryl Bielema

Dr. George McCall


The purpose of this research was to compare the perceptions and experiences of adult learners in two sections of the same course on adult learning at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL); one section was face-to-face and the other section met exclusively online. The subjects were a convenience group of students who had enrolled in the course. The two sections were conducted by the same instructor during the same semester, covered the same course content, and contained identical learning objectives and assignments. All students had the option of taking the course on campus (face-to-face) or completely online. Because the purpose of this research was to describe in rich detail the perceptions and experiences of these learners, the ethnographic participant observer model was used; the questions of transactional distance and learner autonomy were also addressed. Finally, cultural domains for both groups were identified. Data from both course sections were gathered in the form of transcribed classroom discussions, online forum discussions, course email, student interviews, researcher field notes and an online survey. Identification and analysis of cultural domains indicates that the perceptions and experiences of online students were different from those of the face-to-face students. The primary difference between both was a context for interaction. The face-to-face group had a rich social context; and the online group had only a text-based context. The primary similarity for both groups was the same course content. Additional domains were also identified. Both groups relied on MyGateway (UMSL’s version of Blackboard); online students used it for all course-related tasks while face-to-face students relied on it primarily as a course supplement. Data revealed that while most students from both sections found their learning experience interesting and rewarding, those taking the course face-to-face found the social interaction to be a particularly positive experience. While students appreciated the online class option they would have preferred the face-to-face learning environment. Online students also experienced technology-related problems; for students taking the course face to face, technology-related problems were non-existent. Further research is recommended in the area of development and enhancement of social interaction for online students.

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