Behind the Scenes Blog

Five Key Dimensions of Online Learning

In this article ‘Five Key Dimensions of Online Learning’, I discuss the learning dimensions and attributes that students are looking for.

How do I know what students are looking for? Fortunately “McKinsey surveyed more than 7,000 students in 17 countries to find out which elements of online higher education they value most.”[1]

Unfortunately, McKinsey didn’t bother to explain the edu-speak jargon in their article. So let’s look at the essentials and unpack them a bit.


Students value several different things in online learning. The top three are:

  1. Recording classes and making them available to watch later.
  2. Easy access to online study materials.
  3. Flexibility that enables students to work and study.

But there are a lot more things that students want. McKinsey used a model with eight Dimensions containing 24 Attributes (see ‘Exhibit 1’, below). It turns out though, that only ten Attributes from five of the Dimensions made the grade. Read on…

Exhibit 1 from McKinsey Article ‘What do higher education students want from online learning?’

One. A Clear Roadmap

The first popular dimension is a clear roadmap. Within this grouping, students want an online program structure, readiness assessment, and readiness leveling. What does this mean?

Photo by cottonbro studio,

Online Programs Structure

Unsurprisingly, students want to know how to navigate their way around e-learning programs.

What is the structure of the online course program?  In which order should courses, lessons, and modules be studied?  Can some students skip some subjects, or are all of them mandatory?  Which items are assessed?

A good online learning offering will make this crystal clear, thus reducing a student’s anxiety. Remember that students may not be studying in their first language, so it is the training provider’s responsibility to make it easy for them.

Readiness Assessment

Not everyone is suited to online learning, either by circumstances, temperament, or for technical reasons. A Readiness Assessment enables students to self-assess their suitability.

“Before enrolling in an online course, you should first assess your readiness for stepping into the online learning environment. Your answers to the following questions will help you determine what you need to do to succeed at online learning.  Instructions: Choose the most accurate response to each statement. Then click the Am I Ready? button.”[3]

Pennsylvaninia State University

The link takes you to an online questionnaire, which is a bit out of date (technology has moved on). But it’s still a useful exercise and the questions will get you to think about whether online learning is for you.

(Spoiler alert: it doesn’t matter how you answer the questions, the website directs you to the same resources. But that’s OK: they are good resources and worth a look!)

Readiness Leveling

Conventionally, there are four levels of E-Learning [4]

Image from Shift E-learning [5]

“Level 1 e-learning is a passive experience, where the learner just consumes information. There’s little to no interactivity with the course and the learner mostly reads and moves forward by clicking Next.”

Shift E-learning

“At Level 2, e-learning courses start to incorporate some multimedia. Courses at this level can contain audio, some video, basic animations, and a few simple transitions. This level of content is often accompanied by narration and click-and-reveal interactions. Level 2 quizzes start to incorporate drag-and-drop interactions and matching activities.”

Shift E-learning

“With Level 3 e-learning courses, the interactions become even more sophisticated. In this level, you can expect to include extensive audio, video, transitions, animations, and more. Quizzing can involve branched, scenario-based questions that allow learners to explore multiple paths and feedback levels.”  [C.f. ‘Choose Your Adventure’]

Shift E-learning

“Level 4 e-learning uses all of the components in levels 1, 2, and 3, plus gamification or simulation. These courses may incorporate 360° images, games or complex gamification, scenarios, avatars, or interactive videos. These courses are more immersive than other levels of e-learning. As learners interact with the course, they receive feedback on their choices. And in some cases, their choices might even impact the content they’re presented with next.”

Shift E-learning

A lot of e-learning offerings are at Levels One or Two, as the higher levels are much more expensive to deliver. Not all learning needs will require these higher levels, so they are not used unless the scenario demands it.

Two. An Easy Digital Experience

This sounds obvious, but within this Dimension, there are three attributes. Only one is popular: Omni channel. What does this mean?

Omni Channel

Photo by Mike Beard,

“Omnichannel is a multi-channel approach to L&D that seeks to provide the learner with a seamless learning experience whether the learner is learning online from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone or in a bricks and mortar office.”[6]

“Omnichannel marketing — the use of physical and digital storefronts to reach consumers with a unified experience — is a fundamental strategy of modern retailing. Brands that aspire to this approach seek customers via multiple channels: direct mail, TV ads, YouTube channel, website, telemarketing, social media, mobile site, and storefronts. …omnichannel strategies assume that consumers will move from one channel to another.”[7]

So, by extension, omni-channel L&D could offer us a mixture of face-to-face and remote delivery. That said, if the student and trainer COULD get together, then why would they be doing remote learning?

Perhaps we need to be a bit more imaginative about what omnichannel could mean in a purely online setting.

Three. Balanced Learning Formats

Students want two, seemingly contradictory things here – Asynchronous Classes and Synchronous Classes.

Get How to Demonstrate #SFARP

Synchronous Classes

“Synchronous learning refers to instructors and students gathering at the same time and (virtual or physical) place and interacting in ‘real-time’.”

Stanford University

OK, so the mighty Stanford University is essentially referring to ‘live events’. We can deliver these face-to-face or via e-learning.

Asynchronous Classes

“Asynchronous learning means that learning takes place at all different times for students enrolled in a course. Asynchronous learning is any type of learning that you undertake on your own schedule and which does not require consistent real-time interactions with an instructor.”


Here, we’re talking about recorded content (video, audio, text, interactive, etc). This is one of the great strengths of online learning – hence, it’s number-one popularity with students (see Benefits, above).

Four. Captivating Delivery

This sounds obvious, we need to work especially hard to keep students engaged when working online. Surprisingly, of all the things we might imagine, only two things come out of this strongly.

Up To Date Content

Students are looking forward to their future careers, so naturally, they are interested in the ‘latest thing’. In traditional universities, this forward-looking focus was shared by those conducting cutting-edge research. (That said, I have seen university courses in the 2020s based on what was hip and new in the 1970s!)

Those of us who work in online education may not be doing research. And we may be passing on our hard-won experience from long careers. So the challenge is to keep up to date by looking online at what our potential students are searching for – not what we think they should be learning.

Faculty Relevance

This attribute is explicitly referring to a bricks-and-mortar university or higher-education facility. So is it relevant to any other kind of training provider?

I think so. Whether we are a Registered Training Organisation, an industry body, a commercial provider, a consultancy, or even a sole trader, we can ask: how relevant are we to today’s students?

One way to find out is by research. There are lots of great tools out there that can tell us what people are searching for, like Google Trends, Answer the Public and Semrush. Or we might be more specific and look at special interest groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media. If we have access to our target audience – or a competitor’s target audience – then so much the better.

Five. Practical Learning

Two attributes were popular within the Practical Learning dimension, first support for skills certification, and second portfolio building.

Skills Certification

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on

This is easy for a university or higher-education facility since they are accredited to award degrees or other qualifications. Similarly, other bodies may be registered (such as RTOs in Australia) to deliver recognized training and award qualifications.

But what do we do if we want our eLearning from an unaccredited or unregistered body (e.g. because it offers Captivating Delivery)? What should commercial providers do who want to offer skills certification without the value-killing bureaucracy? It turns out that there are (at least) two options.

First, are microcredentials. To get a course microcredentialed, we must include some assessment method(s) to determine whether the student has ‘passed’. (Some will complain that this is training not education, but this can’t be helped.) The course itself must also be independently assessed by some government-appointed authority, which sets requirements to award a microcredential. An example of this is the Australian National Microcredentials Framework.

Second are Digital Badges. For this option, we still have to assess our students, but the digital badge is awarded by a third-party commercial platform. Several such platforms are operating online. These badge-givers have no official writ, so we rely on the fact that many thousands of users sign up with them to create a de facto standard.

Of course, microcredentials and Digital Badges can be combined!

Portfolio Building

Related to Skills Certification is Portfolio Building. Let’s not just collect random badges but follow a development path that builds related skills together. After all, what is a course of study, if not a collection of linked modules, made up of individual lessons?

We might assume that the tertiary education providers have cornered this market, but that’s not so. There are a lot of learning frameworks out there, like Skills For the Information Age (SFIA), or the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). There’s nothing to stop us from aligning our courses into these frameworks, providing that we don’t make false claims about these bodies endorsing them.

“The truth is, our industry is moving away from hiring based on years of experience or formal education credentials alone. Instead, hiring managers are more interested in the specific skills you can offer right now. This means, when they’re considering you as a potential candidate, they want to see evidence of your skills. And the best way to do this is by building an eLearning portfolio.”[8]

eLearning Academy

I’m not sure that I totally agree with this statement by the eLearning Academy. Sure, many firms are interested in what you can do right now: how you can make money for them. My range of skills (aerospace, safety, software, logistics engineering) has certainly got me higher salaries over the years. However, I also had Honours and Masters degree qualifications, which are valuable in the long term.


We said at the start that “McKinsey surveyed more than 7,000 students in 17 countries to find out which elements of online higher education they value most.” They presented the results ranked 4-10 like this:

Exhibit 4 from McKinsey Article ‘What do higher education students want from online learning?’

(Why don’t they include the top three? I guess that they keep back the best bits for the paying clients!)

It’s clear from the survey that the results are not uniform across all 17 countries. There is a striking consistency of results for Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Spain (all Spanish-speaking countries). The US, UK, and Australia follow the pattern moderately well. However, France, China, India, and Saudi Arabia buck the trend.

In fact, the overall response to online learning varies significantly from country to country (see Exhibit 3, below).

Exhibit 3 from McKinsey Article ‘What do higher education students want from online learning?’

The McKinsey survey offers a summary of these variations, but no analysis:

Across the Americas, students in general placed a greater importance on online learning attributes such as skills certification, omnichannel online experiences, and pre-course readiness-assessment and competency leveling. In the United States and most European countries, students said they enjoy studying independently, taking asynchronous classes, and having an intelligent virtual-support platform. In contrast, students in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru value more personalized support, such as a coach to help them navigate school, career, and personal issues. Students in Chile, Italy, Peru, Saudi Arabia, and Spain highly valued having university support in finding internships.

McKinsey Article

It’s also worth noting that there are many barriers to online learning. These need to be overcome, so far as is reasonably practicable, to maximize the uptake of online learning. I will look at those in another article.

My name’s Simon Di Nucci. I’m a practicing system safety engineer, and I have been, for the last 25 years; I’ve worked in all kinds of domains, aircraft, ships, submarines, sensors, and command and control systems, and some work on rail air traffic management systems, and lots of software safety. So, I’ve done a lot of different things!

Five Key Dimensions of Online Learning: Comments?

Leave me your feedback, below:









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *