The 9 Dimensions of Online Learning: How to Plan and Adjust For an Unpredictable Learning Environment

If there is one thing we know for certain heading into a new school year, it is this: It is completely unpredictable.

All around the world, there are variations of emergency remote teaching and learning taking place. Now, in much of North America, educators are faced with the task of planning for an unpredictable new school year. Some schools have just finished, while others are wrapping up classes.

Around the globe, we’ve seen many countries continue to educate, as their school breaks have not taken place, or instead happened during the quarantine. The pandemic is still impacting thousands upon thousands of lives and schooling has been placed in the middle of each government’s response.

As educators, we know that much of this burden for planning, and getting ready for instruction, will fall on us, just as it did when the world began to lockdown.

Heading to an unknown future sure gives me anxiety. It is also why I’ve been studying how to make this shift to prepared online learning, so we can begin to move out of pandemic pedagogy and hopefully towards a more prepared pedagogy (whether in-person, online, or blended/hybrid learning exists). In terms of planning, here are the 9 Dimensions of Online Learning we must think through in order to intentionally develop online learning experiences that work for a variety of learners and circumstances.

The 9 Dimensions of Online Learning

One of the best resources that have guided my work towards online learning over the years (as both a student in an online Master’s Program in Global and International Education, as a teacher who created online courses for K-12 programs, and faculty who has created and taught online courses for the University of Pennsylvania GSE PLN) is the book, Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How by Barbara Means.

Here is what

Online education, including online teaching and learning, has been studied for decades. Numerous research studies, theories, models, standards, and evaluation criteria focus on quality online learning, online teaching, and online course design. What we know from research is that effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development.7 The design process and the careful consideration of different design decisions have an impact on the quality of the instruction. And it is this careful design process that will be absent in most cases in these emergency shifts.

One of the most comprehensive summaries of research on online learning comes from the book Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How.8 The authors identify nine dimensions, each of which has numerous options, highlighting the complexity of the design and decision-making process. The nine dimensions are modality, pacing, student-instructor ratio, pedagogy, instructor role online, student role online, online communication synchrony, role of online assessments, and source of feedback (see “Online learning design options”).

Online learning design options (moderating variables)

  • Modality
    • Fully online
    • Blended (over 50% online)
    • Blended (25–50% online)
    • Web-enabled F2F – Synchronous


    • Self-paced (open entry, open exit)
    • Class-paced
    • Class-paced with some self-paced

    Student-Instructor Ratio

    • < 35 to 1
    • 36–99 to 1
    • 100–999 to 1
    • > 1,000 to 1


    • Expository
    • Practice
    • Exploratory
    • Collaborative

    Role of Online Assessments

    • Determine if student is ready for new content
    • Tell system how to support the student (adaptive instruction)
    • Provide student or teacher with information about learning state
    • Input to grade
    • Identify students at risk of failure
  • Instructor Role Online
    • Active instruction online
    • Small presence online
    • None

    Student Role Online

    • Listen or read
    • Complete problems or answer questions
    • Explore simulation and resources
    • Collaborate with peers

    Online Communication Synchrony

    • Asynchronous only
    • Synchronous only
    • Some blend of both

    Source of Feedback

    • Automated
    • Teacher
    • Peers
Source: Content adapted from Barbara Means, Marianne Bakia, and Robert Murphy, Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How (New York: Routledge, 2014).

How to Use the 9 Dimensions in Planning Online Learning

Let’s take a look at what the research says about students’ needs and struggles in the online classroom. Loreli Smyth pulled research from the past 15 years to develop this guide on using student feedback to design online learning. In each of the cases described the 9 Dimensions (and how they are used) are on display:

What Do Students Say They Want and Need in the Online Classroom?

  • Faculty Presence: Engagement, Feedback, and Assistance. Students don’t want to feel isolated in online learning environments. They prefer when university instructors incorporate interactive elements and opportunities for communication into the course design. Research suggests that engagement increases when faculty relate course activities to students’ major field of study or life experiences.
  • Course Content: Clear Expectations, Motivation, and Challenge. When students aren’t able to find important information or course components, they simply are unable to use them. This can result in frustration, lowered motivation, and decreased self-efficacy. Research suggests that findability is the most significant predictor of both self-efficacy and motivation among students in online courses. Students also find greater satisfaction when a course has real-world relevance and provides appropriate challenges. Students reported that challenging assignments have intrinsic value that further increases their satisfaction.

What Do Students Say They Struggle With Most Online?

  • Instructor Presence: Social Interaction (i.e. feelings of isolation) and Lack of Support. As mentioned above, students don’t want to feel isolated. It is one of the primary struggles that they deal with as online students. While isolation can be addressed through course content, it is up to the instructor to be present and help build the class community. An increased faculty presence can help the students feel supported as they progress through the course.
  • Course Content: Technical Difficulties, Social Interaction, and Lack of Structure. Technical difficulties (e.g. submitting an assignment, accessing a program, and using Excel) are a top struggle expressed by online students in higher education and can lead to them feeling frustrated and upset. While technical issues are bound to happen in any situation, course designers can set the students up for success by making sure they have all the information they need – including ensuring they know where to go for help.

It is also important to add social interaction elements, such as discussions, group assignments, video, etc., into the course design to build a sense of community and prevent feelings of isolation. Course organization and structure is also important as it aligns with the students’ need for clear expectations. If the course is disorganized and not designed with a structure in mind, students can feel lost.

This is important for two reasons.

First, when going through the 9 Dimensions of Online Learning as a checklist, we may overlook some key areas that our learners need to be successful.

Second, we should begin planning with the needs of all our learners at the forefront (begin with empathy) instead of starting from a place of what might work best for us as the instructor.

While the modality and student-teacher ration may not be something we can control as learning designers, all of the other dimensions have a direct influence on those teaching and preparing lessons, activities, and structures for online or blended learning.

Here are some guiding questions to ask as we prepare for the upcoming school year (or if you are in the middle of teaching online right now):

  • In what ways can I create pacing structures and guidelines that allow for flexibility in online learning, while still being clear on expectations?
  • How much of the pedagogy is direct instruction in asynchronous videos and lectures? How might we add exploratory, collaborative, and project-based activities to drive instruction?
  • Learners need social interaction and human connection more than ever in online learning experiences? In what ways can we offer this on a schedule that is flexible enough for the variety of family circumstances, but also doesn’t tether a teacher to their device 24/7?
  • Feedback drives learning. In what ways can we provide specific daily and weekly feedback to learners and families as to prevent the perception (and reality) of lack of support?

Please add your questions and experiences below in the comments. By working together to plan for the unknown we’ll all have a better chance at handling the unpredictable nature of teaching and learning!

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