The online student experience: A MAC-ICE thematic structure




online, retention, motivation, skills, interactive, learning design, qualitative


Attracting and retaining students in a COVID-distanced online higher education market is more important than ever. With limited access to campus, extensive student choice, and precarious institutional revenue, understanding what makes a positive online student experience in the eyes of students themselves, is vital for institutional survival. Through an in-depth case study of online first-year university students, this research identified six themes that describe students’ lived experiences of online education (OE), summarised as a motivation, ability, circumstances – interaction, curriculum, environment, or MAC-ICE, thematic structure of the online student experience (OSE). Where online students are deeply motivated, possess the skills to participate effectively in online university education, and are situated in conducive circumstances, they may be well placed for a positive student experience. Supplementing this, universities may facilitate a quality OSE through meaningful interaction with instructors, peers, and course content; flexible, challenging, and relevant curricula; and a reliable, innovative learning environment commensurate with the on-campus student experience. The rich description provided by this research enables generation of propositions about students’ experiences of OE, and suggests opportunities to enhance the OSE through consideration of identified themes.


Implications for practice or policy:

  • The OSE can be described by students’ motivation, ability, and circumstances, alongside institutional interaction, curriculum, and environment.
  • OE may be perceived to involve more work, greater concentration, better time management, more self-regulation, and a heavier reliance on technology, than on-campus education.
  • OE research may be confounded, where particular MAC-ICE themes are insufficiently considered.
  • Online student outcomes may be increased through purposeful consideration of all MAC-ICE themes.


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How to Cite

Henry, M. (2021). The online student experience: A MAC-ICE thematic structure. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 37(4), 159–172.