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Peer social support among online undergraduate students: A circle of comfort

, Fielding Graduate University, United States

Fielding Graduate University . Awarded


This qualitative study explores how peer social support is manifested, described, and valued by online undergraduate students. The research is underpinned by literatures in the areas of social support, online social support, the social dimension of the online classroom, and traditional academic programs and social support. Fourteen students from a large, exclusively online university participated in semi-structured interviews. Participant interviews were analyzed to identify and understand students' socially supportive experiences. The data indicated that online students experience social support in one of three different ways and fall into three distinct experiential groups: (a) Incidental supporters (IS)--students who give and receive social support for the purpose of furthering their education; (b) Amicable supporters (AS)--students who begin socially supportive relationships because of a school assignment but who continue the relationship outside the class; and, (c) Emotional supporters (ES)--students who form tight, emotional bonds that transcend the online learning experience.

This dissertation study provides important insights for online faculty and online universities. A key finding in this research is that students described peer social support positively. This suggests a clear need for educational institutions to build opportunities for socially supportive interactions among student peers into online curriculum. Institutions have an opportunity to initially assess how students might respond to the idea of socially supportive peers and plan curriculum accordingly. In addition, the three different experiential groups provide a structure for understanding how wholly-online undergraduate students perceive and experience social support. Based on these research findings, curriculum designers can construct classes and degree programs without the overwhelming notion of trying to find an approach to individually introduce peer social support to all students.

Key words: social support, peer social support, perceived social support, online learning, online education, online teaching, e-learning, distance learning


Voigt, L.L. Peer social support among online undergraduate students: A circle of comfort. Ph.D. thesis, Fielding Graduate University. Retrieved December 5, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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