The online student experience: An exploration of first-year university students’ expectations, experiences and outcomes of online education
Thesis written by Melanie Henry
Online higher education presents a critical opportunity to extend and diversify the student body. The Online Student Experience (OSE), and online student outcomes, however, remain shrouded in ambiguity. The literature presents conflicting reports of online education (OE) quality, confounded by a lack of appreciation for potential differences between online and on-campus education, and a diversity of interpretations for what constitutes OE. The present research conceptualises OE as representing university courses that require students to interact with instructors and course materials via the internet, with no expectation of attending a university campus. A broad student-centred perspective is notably lacking from the OE literature, with limited consideration of students’ expectations and perceptions, students’ experiences beyond the curriculum, and the role of students’ experiences in online student outcomes. Instead, prior research has relied on assumed benefits and limitations, or researcher-determined measures of online student suitability and online course quality. The first-year transition may be especially challenging for online students, furthermore, yet understanding of the online first-year experience has been limited to extrapolations from on-campus literature. In the absence of a deep, student-centred understanding of first-year online students’ expectations and experiences, combined with clear evidence for what may contribute to a quality OSE; it remains unclear whether OE presents a viable method of education, and how online student outcomes might be enhanced.
A deeper understanding of the OSE is critical to ensure universities attract and retain a diverse range of students. The present research contributes to this understanding, offering a rich description of how first-year students at an Australian public university constructed their lived experiences of OE, and attributed meaning to these experiences. Adopting qualitative inquiry and phenomenological case study methodology, online students’ expectations, experiences and outcomes were explored through in-depth online interviews with 43 students; and resultant transcripts analysed using thematic analysis.
Six themes were identified to describe students’ lived experiences of OE: learner Motivation, Ability and Circumstances; and institutional Interaction, Curriculum and Environment, forming a Motivation, Ability, Circumstances – Interaction, Curriculum, Environment, or MAC-ICE, thematic structure of the OSE. Discrete expectations and experiences formed sub-themes corresponding to each of these themes. Students’ experiences varied considerably, nonetheless, with no consistent explanation for how all first-year university students might experience OE, corresponding to frequent inaccurate expectations.
Each theme was perceived to have informed students’ outcomes, either directly contributing to their learning, performance, satisfaction or retention, or facilitating experiences conducive to these outcomes. In addition, where students’ expectations were met (or exceeded), or they were supported to manage inaccurate expectations, they felt more satisfied with their experience, and vice versa. Online student outcomes were also interconnected, with retention informed by students’ academic performance and satisfaction; satisfaction informed by learning and academic performance; and academic performance informed by students’ learning. A quality OSE, therefore, appears highly complex, dependent on a range of experiences connected to both the learner and their institution. This interconnectedness of the OSE was summarised through a MAC-ICE thematic matrix.
The findings bring together a fragmented and piecemeal understanding of OE, presenting a holistic and student-centred depiction of a quality OSE. The present research combines and builds upon Constructivist Learning Theory (Lesgold, 2004; Richardson, 2003), Expectation-Confirmation Theory (Bhattacherjee, 2001), and Kember’s Longitudinal-process Model of Drop-out from Distance Education (1989), to form a holistic and student-centred understanding of the OSE, enabling propositions that may clarify and enhance OE theory, and contribute to improved online student outcomes. The resultant MAC-ICE thematic structure and matrix furthermore, offer means through which prior research may be further scrutinised, and the OSE thoroughly examined, enabling researchers, policy-makers and universities alike, to identify, investigate and implement strategies that may ensure a quality OSE.