Using a Mixed-Methods Approach to Understand What Students Expect From Their Online Education: Why it Matters

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

Using a SERVQUAL tool modified for the online learning environment, we conducted mixed-methods study to explore student expectations of online education, student perceived service, gaps in service quality, and faculty perceptions of student expectations. We present the results, research methods for replication, and why gathering this type of data matters.


Beverly Dabney is an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her academic degrees include an MSN from the University of Michigan in Nursing/Nursing Administration in 2008 and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2013. Her primary teaching focus is in the online Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) program. Dr. Dabney uses creative and evidence-based high quality and high impact practices to educate her students. She consistently works to improve her courses and is highly responsive to the needs of students. Her research related to RN to BSN students is used to inform changes in instruction and course design.
Dr. Linton has been an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Michigan-Flint since 2014. Her research interests include; student satisfaction with online learning, student success, international service learning, and sustainability in nursing and healthcare. Shes pent the majority of her nursing career in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and practiced as a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner for over 30 years.

Extended Abstract

Discrepancies between student expectations of online education and their perceptions of actual program experiences can lead to negative outcomes such as decreased student satisfaction, increased attrition, and student reluctance to recommend a program to others.  The gap model of service quality, a customer-satisfaction framework, identifies five potential gaps that must be evaluated so that corrective actions and process improvements can be implemented to improve customer-perceived satisfaction (Berry, Zeithaml, & Parasuraman, 1990).

This framework was used to evaluate an online Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program located in the Midwest of the United States. The RN student population has unique needs and face barriers such as competing priorities, work schedules, family obligations, time constraints, past negative educational experiences, and limited funds (Altman, 2011; Duffy et al., 2014).  To better meet the needs of these students for flexibility, of the 747 RN to BSN programs in the U.S., more than 400 were offered at least partially online (AACN, 2017). Yet, little research has been completed regarding the expectations these adult learners have of online education. Even less attention has been directed towards evaluating how student expectations compare to their perceptions of the actual online education services received.  

Gaps 1 and 5 of the gap model of service quality were targeted for this study. Gap 1, the knowledge gap,  measures the difference between student expectations of service and faculty perceptions of what students expectations. This gap occurs when discrepancies arise between what faculty perceive  student expect and what students actually expect. Gap 5, the customer gap, measures the difference between student expectations of service and their perceived actual service. This gap occurs when the student’s actual experiences to do meet their expectations (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1985).  Gaps found in both of these areas can influence student perceptions of program quality.

A mixed-methods study was conducted to explore student expectations, student perceived service, gaps in service quality, and faculty perceptions of student expectations.

The research questions for this study were as follows:

1. What expectations do RN students have of their online education experience?

2.  What perceptions do RN students have of their actual online education experiences?

3. What gaps exist between student expectations and perceptions in the areas of empathy, assurance, responsiveness, reliability, website content, and e-learning quality.

4. What do faculty perceive students expect from their online education experience?

5.  Is there a gap between faculty perceptions of student expectations and students’ reported expectations?

Following institutional review board approval, students and faculty participants were recruited via university email. A SERVQUAL tool modified by Udo, Bagchi, and Kirs (2011) to fit the online learning environment was used for the collection of quantitative data. Qualitative data were collected during student and faculty interviews using semi-structured questions. Survey participants included 54 active students. Fifteen students and five faculty participated in the qualitative interviews.

Quantitative analysis revealed gaps in all dimensions. The expectation-perception gap was greatest for responsiveness (-0.506) and least for website content (-0.156).  Other gaps included assurance (-0.287), reliability (-0.364), e-learning quality (-0.389), and empathy (-0.423). Student responses to three single-item survey questions on a scale of 1=very poor to 7=excellent were as follows: Your perception of the program’s overall instruction quality (Mean 6.07, SD .843);  Would you recommend this RN to BSN program to someone else (Mean 5.93, SD, 1.21); I would say that I am satisfied with the RN to BSN program (Mean 5.87, SD 1.25). Significant correlations between the 6 dimensions and student reports of satisfaction and quality were revealed.

Qualitative analysis revealed three common themes between students and faculty including: workload, coursework, and flexibility.  Agreements were found in the areas of workload and coursework and a gap was found in the area of flexibility. Faculty introduced an additional theme of availability and students introduced an additional theme of support.

Discrepancies between student expectations and experiences as well as faculty’s perceptions of their expectations, do impact students’ perceptions of overall online program quality. In the online environment especially, eliciting student feedback regarding their experiences is essential. The results of this study were used to inform faculty practices as well as decisions related to a recent curricular revision. The study of student expectations and perceptions assists in locating areas of performance where improvements are needed, or areas where resources could be better utilized.

Educators and administrators are rightly concerned with delivering quality online education that students find satisfying. As leaders of educational institutions strive to remain viable in a rapidly changing world, adopting a student-as-customer focus aids in meeting student needs more effectively (Mark, 2013). The gap model of service quality has been recognized widely in the quality literature and is useful in higher education evaluation. In this discovery session, participants will learn the process of conducting a gap analysis using the modified SERVQUAL tool, which measures student expectations and perceptions of six quality dimension: empathy (faculty’s ability to provide caring and individualized attention), assurance (faculty’s knowledge, courtesy and ability to convey trust and confidence), responsiveness (faculty’s willingness to help students and provide prompt service), reliability (faculty’s ability to perform promised services dependably and accurately), website content (layout, visual effect and appeal, graphics use, presence of multimedia, and information quality), and e-learning quality (quality and clarity of instruction, information currency, and website feature functionality).  Participants of this discovery session will review the data and its implications for our program, learn how to replicate this study and tailor it to their online student populations, as well as why obtaining this type of information on their specific student population matters. Participants will receive handouts including the student questionnaire and qualitative semi-structured interview questions for both students and faculty.


Altmann, T. K. (2011). Registered nurses returning to school for a bachelor’s degree in nursing: Issues emerging from a meta-analysis of the research. Contemporary Nurse, 39(2), 256–272. doi:10.5172/conu.2011.39.2.256

American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).  Fact sheet: The impact of education on nursing practice. 2017.

Berry, L. L., Zeithaml, V. A., & Parasuraman, A. (1990). Five imperatives for improving service quality. MIT Sloan Management Review, 31(4), 29.

Duffy, M. T., Friesen, M. A., Speroni, K. G., Swengros, D., Shanks, L. A., Waiter, P. A., & Sheridan, M. J. (2014). BSN completion barriers, challenges, incentives, and strategies. The Journal of Nursing Administration, 44(4), 232–236. doi:10.1097/NNA.0000000000000054

Mark, E. (2013). Student satisfaction and the customer focus in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(1), 2–10. doi:10.1080/1360080X.2012.727703

Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V. A., & Berry, L. L. (1985). A conceptual model of service quality and its implications for future research. Journal of Marketing, 49(4), 41–50. doi:10.2307/1251430

Udo, G. J., Bagchi, K. K., & Kirs, P. J. (2011). Using SERVQUAL to assess the quality of e-learning experience. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(3), 1272–1283. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2011.01.009