What is e-learning?

What is e-learning?

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 (often called ‘microlearning’). 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. 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 may 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 stuff 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 ‘tell them then test at the end’ structure.


The technologies on which most e-learning modules are built (HTML and Javascript) 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 Teachable) 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 or xAPI.


So, does the conventional e-learning module have a future? In the short term the answer has to be a resounding yes. And this is clear from the raft of new authoring tools which are making it easier to develop conventional e-learning modules, whether they are the click next, screen by screen type (Articulate Storyline) or the scroll down responsive mobile type (Articulate Rise).
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