Adventures in Online Learning Infographic

Adventures in Online Learning

Defining e-learning in 2013

A 'conventional' SCORM e-learning module (Articulate Storyline on iPad)

A ‘conventional’ SCORM e-learning module (Articulate Storyline on iPad)

There are many definitions of e-learning. Some limit its scope while others broaden it depending upon the needs of the definer. Its definition in education is quite different to its definition in the commercial world.

In the commercial (non-education) world there is increasing pressure from clients to develop e-learning that is shorter and which can be delivered in bite sized chunks (see ‘Resources or Courses?’). This pressure is forcing many to redefine the very nature of e-learning and this is causing confusion amongst many who are new to it all.  I’ve always preferred a broad definition and one that encompasses a wide range of web based learning technologies and approaches.

E-learning is a broadly inclusive term that describes educational technology that electronically or technologically supports learning and teaching. Wikipedia

For me online learning and e-learning are synonymous but this isn’t the way e-learning is understood by many in the commercial world where efficiency and cost reduction is the key driver for its popularity. So in an attempt to clarify what most people mean when they talk about e-learning (what I often call conventional e-learning) here is my updated definition:

E-learning is a packaged digital resource that helps someone learn something new. E-learning resources are normally called ‘modules’. A course may be a single module or a collection of modules which must be completed in a set order. E-learning is different to other learning resources in that it requires learner interaction. Learners must respond to questions, engage in activities and make decisions. Based on their choices they receive feedback and may be directed to different material. In this way the resource is adaptive and will be experienced differently by different learners.  In  E-learning the leaner is active not passive. Most e-learning modules will be produced as a SCORM package and delivered via a learning management system (LMS).

Of course not all e-learning modules will meet these criteria – much of the early e-learning modules belonged to the ’page turning’ genre but most professional e-learning developers today will rarely build page-turners for their clients. E-learning authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate are designed to develop these conventional SCORM packaged modules – ideally packed full of exciting learning interactions and activities.

So applying this definition – a video (even a very cool explainer video), a beautifully designed PDF or infographic does not constitute e-learning even though they may be delivered digitally though a ‘learning platform’.

The problem with conventional e-learning is that it lacks flexibility and is tied to the old teaching paradigm – it’s usually linear and needs to be completed from start to finish to work effectively. Although some e-learning modules offer a more flexible way to navigate through the material most clients and LMS’ prefer the ‘screen at a time and test at the end’ structure.

The technologies on which most e-learning modules are built (Flash or HTML) are also less flexible that other web based formats such as video or PDF files. In particular the growth of mobile devices in their various form factors and operating systems has really challenged the role of conventional e-learning and many new online learning platforms (e.g. Udemy or iTunes U) have sidestepped SCORM altogether in favour of video and other mobile friendly content standards. The so-called successor to SCORM, Tin Can recognises this new online learning landscape and substantially broadens what constitutes learning on the web. Reading a blog, commenting in a forum, or watching a video are all learning activities in the world of Tin Can. They are all potential learning experiences which is why Tin Can has been re-badged as the Experience API.

So does the conventional e-learning module have a future? In the short term the answer has to be a resounding yes. Most e-learning is still done on non mobile devices accessed via a conventional LMS, and tools such as Articulate Storyline are making it easier for everyone (not just the pros) to develop conventional e-learning modules.

However even if, like the classroom, the conventional e-learning module may be with us for some time yet many in the industry are exploring new approaches to learning online and I’ll take a look at what those new approaches are in my next post.

Stanford Venture Lab MOOC

I’m currently participating in a MOOC (massive open online course) delivered by Paul Kim at Stanford University and which is running on Stanford’s own Venture Lab learning platform. I’m primarily interested in learning about the platform and what it’s like to actually learn in this way but the course I am taking is also interesting in itself since it’s called: Designing a New Learning Environment. This first video introduces the platform. More to follow as I work my way through the course.

Online Learning Pathways

Conventional e-learning relies on the SCORM module (sometimes called the SCO – ‘shareable content object’ by those in the business). The SCORM module is a good concept – effectively an online learning activity that includes interactions and assessment that can be delivered via any SCORM compatible LMS (effectively all LMS’). But there are some serious limitations to SCORM so are there other ways to develop e-learning or online learning that don’t require the use of SCORM?

Yes there are, and they are becoming increasingly popular for a number of reasons.

I’m currently working with WillowDNA where we are busy ‘unpacking’ e-learning and creating what we call ‘learning pathways’. This isn’t a new term but there are some nuances to the way we are designing and building learning pathways online.

Why unpack SCORM? Well there are some key things that SCORM doesn’t support and the most important of these in my view is interaction with other learners or with a facilitator or trainer. By packing everything into a single object (the SCO) SCORM also creates barriers to access. You really enjoyed a video you saw or liked the scenario at the end – you can’t access these unless you are within the SCORM module.

Online learning pathways allow for a wider range of learning activities organised in a more flexible format. They can still include SCORM objects of course but the SCORMs are generally much shorter. Learning pathways can also incorporate existing assets such as documents, videos or web based resources.

So what does an online learning pathway look like and what learning activities are possible?

Here’s a graphic that illustrates the pathway approach.



Creating learning pathways isn’t exactly rocket science but they do need some insightful learning design if they are to be truly successful. Designing online learning pathways requires the skills of an instructional designer combined with the skills of a good face-to-face trainer or facilitator.

Learning pathways come in a variety of types depending upon the level of learner to learner and learner to trainer interaction. There are four basic types:


This has no social elements at all. It performs the same type of tasks as conventional e-learning. The advantage is that it can be completed independently by the learner so it’s good for compliance or other types of basic knowledge acquisition.


This adds learner to learner interaction into the mix. To be successful this type of pathway needs to have a number of learners working through the material at the same time. We call a learner group in this context a ‘cohort’. The cohort can be loosely connected – for example they don’t all need to start and finish on a specific date/time. Adding a social element really helps transform e-learning from something that you do on your own to something where you can genuinely interact with others and hopefully learn from them as well as from the course materials.


This adds both learner to learner interaction and also facilitator or trainer support. The facilitation can be light touch but adding it enables social activities to be included in the learning mix (for example a workplace assignment). Supported learning paths can also include synchronous (live) events such as webinars.


This mixes online elements and face-to-face elements. This is ideal where you have a course where some elements are best done face-to-face whilst others are ideally suited to being delivered online. This type of learning path can also adopt a ‘flipped classroom’ approach with knowledge building activities done online prior to a face-to-face workshop where skills or techniques are practised.



I’ll look at the various types of pathway in more depth in a future post.

The only downside is that pathways generally need to be designed with a specific learning platform (LMS or VLE) in mind.

Willow have their own platform – called unsurprisingly Pathway – but learning pathways can also be created on other platforms. Moodle is good at supporting the pathway approach. But of course a pathway is less simple to move between platforms so it’s less flexible than a SCORM module if you want to distribute it across the planet. But in practice most online learning is bespoke for the organisation and the audience – it is rarely shipped and distributed (unless you are attempting to compete with an off-the-shelf provider such as SkillSoft). On the positive side many of the ‘activities’ in a learning pathway are even more transferable – PDF files, video files, audio, and SCORM lessons can all be moved and re-used simply and easily. It’s just the ‘conversations’ that will need re-creating but then they are unique to each learner cohort anyway.

Online Learning People: Martin Bean

Online learning is becoming big business in the education sector. Increasing fees coupled with demand by learners for more flexible study options is creating a rapidly growing market for online courses. As can be expected most of the response to this rising demand is from institutions outside the traditional university ‘bricks’ model. And one of the most innovative of these in the UK is the Open University (OU).

The Open University has since its creation in 1969 used a distance learning model based initially on printed resources (think big binders arriving in the post) but also supported by educational videos delivered via the BBC. Most of us Baby Boomers will have at some time watched an OU programme on Astrophysics or Petroleum Geology in the small hours. More recently the OU has gone online and today most of its students log into their courses via the Moodle VLE. The OU does online learning in a really big way supporting over 250,000 students at any one time.

Demonstrating their commitment to online learning the OU appointed an ex Microsoft Education Products Group employee as their Vice Chancellor in 2009. His name is Martin Bean and I recently came across this presentation which he delivered at the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) Conference in 2009. It’s over 50 minutes long but it’s worth watching for the mix of insights provided by an educator that has also spent a lot of time working at the heart of the tech industry.

Did you know?
The OU Business School is the largest provider of MBAs in the UK, producing more graduates than all the rest of the business schools put together.

Online Learning with Google

Being an online learning expert I’m always keen to see how other people are doing online learning so when I had an invitation from Google to take part in their ‘Power Searching’ online course I signed-up right away. Here’s a walkthrough of my impressions so far.


The Richness of the Classroom

The Richness of the Classroom


Online learning has always been positioned as the poor relation to classroom or face-to-face learning. The challenge has always been:

 ’How can you possibly re-create the richness of the classroom online?’.

My standard response was that not all classrooms have richness – it depends upon the ability of the trainer. Some trainers are truly exceptional, relying on well designed exercises and activities to really help people learn. I characterise these trainers as ‘The Star on the Stage‘. However some trainers are far less capable, relying on stacks of PowerPoint slides packed with hundreds of bullet points. Others really know their stuff but are unable to bring the deep knowledge they have to life for learners. These trainers are often characterised as ‘The Sage on the Stage‘ (you will recognise them from your college or university days).

Mr Clugston and Dr Jennens

At school these two teachers made a big impression on me. Mr Clugston introduced me to the joy of mathematics. His passion for the subject combined with his insight into what makes the subject difficult for learners meant that he was able to design maths lessons that kept us awake and fully engaged. He also loved technology and brought along one of the very first programmable calculators (a Sinclair with an LED display) to a lesson one day to show us how maths was changing the world. Dr Jennens however made physics boring to the extreme. His detachment from learners and from the problems learner’s faced in understanding abstract concepts meant that many of us lost interest completely and had to pass our exams using our text books alone.   

In the early days I accepted that an online course was probably less rich than a good (Star on the Stage) face-to-face workshop but its advantage was that it was more efficient and flexible and accessible by anyone 24/7. Not many classrooms can do that!

Recently though I have come to realise that online learning can be just as rich as classroom learning. It’s just that the richness is evident in different ways. Here are some of them:

  • In a well designed e-learning module you can explore things and repeat things to your heart’s content and you can fail without embarrassment. It’s just you and your learning.
  • In a virtual classroom you can make contributions, take part in polls and follow live weblinks all from the comfort of your laptop or tablet computer.
  • In a webinar you can surf the backchannel chatting with other learners and sharing stuff that the trainer has missed.
  • In a virtual learning environment you can take part in discussions with other learners and get help from your e-tutor when you need it.
  • In a learning management system you can take online assessments or diagnostics to test your own understanding.
  • In a social learning platform you can contribute your own content and resources and these can be rated and commented on by other learners. You can be the trainer as well as the learner.
  • You can access learning at the point of need via a mobile device such as a smarphone or tablet.
  • You can extend your learning beyond the single classroom event so that not only do you learn stuff but you also have the ability to reflect on and show evidence of how that learning is applied back in the workplace.
  • You can connect your learning with colleagues and others via social media tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.

I still come across trainers and L&D people who will defend the classroom until the lights go out. Partly this is because they see online learning as a threat to their business model but it’s also because they genuinely haven’t opened their minds to the possibilities of online learning.

This isn’t meant as a polemic against the classroom just a recognition that online learning has some great things going for it and any trainer not using it to improve the learning experience for their learners is in danger of becoming extinct.

e-Learning meets Online Learning

Over the last eight years I have worked primarily on e-learning projects for organisations in the private and public sector. Almost universally the definition of e-learning in this market is pretty limiting. It involves the delivery of learning content via a SCORM module accessed via an LMS. In most cases the SCORM module is developed in Flash (so that it supports ‘learner interactions’), includes a quiz to test understanding and is usually around 30-40 minutes long (just enough time to squeeze it in at the start or end of the working day or over a long coffee break maybe). Provided the pass mark is attained in the embedded test the learning is marked as ‘complete’ and you move onto something else. I now refer to this type of e-learning as packaged e-learning. This type of e-learning is very popular with large organisations because it is very efficient:

  • It’s available 24/7
  • It’s consistent
  • It’s quick
  • It’s very scalable
  • It’s easy to manage
  • It’s easy to track

Clearly for large organisations this efficiency has enormous benefits. If you need to make sure that all your employees are up to speed on the latest information security policy then packaged e-learning is a no-brainer.

packaged SCORM e-learning

Packaged e-learning does work (from

But is it very effective? Sometimes yes. If you need your employees to learn something simple quickly then it’s hard to beat a well designed SCORM module but if you need to do something more significant, something more inspirational something that involves real learning then you need something more powerful.

Unpacking e-Learning

So what other types of e-learning are there? Well in the higher education sector the definition of e-learning is substantially different. Here e-learning is used primarily in support of face-to-face lecture delivery. Entire courses are constructed in a virtual learning environment (VLE), the equivalent of the corporate LMS, and used to engage with learners before and after face-to-face lectures and the occasional seminar. Most of the core ‘teaching’ is still delivered offline while the VLE acts like a learning resource centre with each course organised as a structured hierarchy of topics. The VLE is also used as a communication platform with discussions, profiles, calendars, and blogs shared between learners and between learners and tutors. Sometimes VLE’s will also include packaged SCORM modules but this is the exception rather than the rule.

VLE’s are by their very nature more social than a standard corporate LMS. They manage not only learning activities and resources but also a range of communication channels between learners and facilitators. These ‘social’ communications include:

  • e-mail
  • discussion forums
  • instant messaging
  • blogs
  • wikis

To get value from these communication channels of course you need to be learning with others. In most educational situations this is the class or cohort you are learning with and that cohort will be supported by the course tutor.

Online learning path

Online Learning Path in Pathway (from

Cohorts are rarely created in corporate LMS’ because they undermine some of the key benefits of the self paced approach.

Convergence is Coming

The two types of e-learning described are both valid in their own way but we are now seeing a degree of convergence between the two types. In the corporate world there is a lot of interest in encouraging learners to interact with each other and to add a social dimension to their e-learning. In the education sector there is a revival in online distance education where the VLE acts not just as the learning resources centre but as the primary platform for learning delivery. Lately universities and colleges have recognised that there are potentially large numbers of additional fee paying students beyond the physical campus and the VLE is a key enabler in delivering learning to these virtual students.

These shifting requirements are creating demand for new types of learning platforms and existing platforms are being used in innovative new ways. Corporate LMS’ are getting more social while VLEs are increasingly using multimedia assets such as video and interactive SCORM modules.

These are interesting times for learning technologists.

The Online Learning Revolution

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education
Via: and @EdRels

TED-Ed Launches

TED launched their new education orientated series of short films today. Called TED-Ed the formula appears to be:

  1. Identify a cool topic (e.g. How do Dolphins Communicate?)
  2. Find a brilliant teacher (e.g. Miss Hogarth from Anytown High)
  3. Put 1 and 2 together with some ‘pro-animators’ (volunteers wanted)
  4. Create a 10 min video and share with the world.

It’s a nice idea, and of course it will all be free to share but I can’t help thinking that we are in danger of turning learning into ‘videobites’.

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