What Is eLearning? Types, Advantages, and Drawbacks

What Is eLearning? Types, Advantages, and Drawbacks
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The digital transformations paved by the COVID-19 pandemic include those in the educational sector. This resulted in the learning management systems (LMS) and other digital tools that enable schools to continue instruction amid the cancellation of classes (Remote Learning, EdTech & COVID-19, 2020). As such, elearning came into view and made distance learning possible. According to a World Bank brief, its methods have been adopted globally to ensure uninterrupted education (How Countries are Using Edtech, 2020).

To help improve understanding of this emerging educational method, this article provides a picture of what elearning is. This article also discusses the history of elearning, its various types, and the approach’s commonly used delivery methods.

What Is eLearning Table of Contents

  1. What is eLearning?
  2. A Brief History of eLearning
  3. Types of eLearning
  4. eLearning Delivery Methods
  5. Benefits of eLearning
  6. Drawbacks of eLearning
  7. eLearning During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2006, Mason and Rennie posited that elearning is at the center of “wildly inaccurate predictions,” saying that the technology has achieved only a modest growth rate in both education and training. However, it appears that times have greatly changed since then. Education market intelligence firm HolonIQ estimates that the market for elearning and education technology will grow at the rate of 11% per annum, to $341 billion by 2025, bolstered by growing investments from Asian countries such as China and India.

Source: Forward Intelligence (Qianzhan)

eLearning methods have proved to be effective in corporate settings as well, with a Small Business Trends report saying that corporations have increased their use of elearning by 900% from 2001 to 2017. To shed light on the reasons behind the popularity of this educational technology, this article provides an overview of elearning and its different types and delivery methods.

What is elearning?

Experts in education and educational technology define elearning as “the delivery of training and education via networked interactivity and a range of other knowledge collection and distribution technologies” (Fry, 2000). Because of its delivery methods, elearning is also referred to as electronic learning or online learning.

According to Arkorful and Abaidoo (2015), the definition of elearning is the subject of much debate in the education and technology communities. Different definitions tend to focus on varying aspects of the method, depending on the interests of the researcher. For instance, Twigg (2002) describes the elearning concept as being centered around the learner and the interactive, self-paced customizable nature of the system. Tao et al. (2006), on the other hand, emphasized that elearning focuses on the electronic networks that allow learners to receive individualized support and have separate, flexible learning schedules.

With these different descriptions of the concept of elearning, it is difficult to identify a common definition for the concept, except in the broadest sense that it is learning that is enabled electronically (Abbad et al 2009). Materials commonly used for elearning include websites (for research), educational videos, and ebooks.

Source: Deloitte

eLearning vs Distance Learning

While the terms “elearning” and “distance learning” are often used interchangeably, industry experts have identified some differences between these concepts. One of the key differences between elearning and distance learning is location. In elearning, learners and instructors can be together in one place while using digital tools to enhance the learning experience (Stauffer, 2020).

Meanwhile, distance learning is more about using technology to bridge the distance between students and instructors (Berg, 2020). Through distance learning, for instance, a student in the United States can attend a university in Europe without having to relocate.

A Brief History of eLearning

The term “elearning” was coined by Elliot Masie at his TechLearn Conference in 1999; this was the first instance that the term was used in a professional context (Gutierrez, 2014). However, the use of computers and other digital tools predates this by around three decades. In the mid-1960s, psychology professors at Stanford tried using computers and teleprinters to teach arithmetic and spelling to elementary school students (Suppes, 1971).

Likewise, in 1960, elearning began to take root in the University of Illinois. The university had created an Intranet for its students, allowing them to access course materials and listen to recorded lectures through a system of linked computer terminals (Argawal & Pandey, 2013). By the mid-1980s, many college libraries had followed suit, allowing students to access course content from library terminals.

The first online courses were offered by the Electronic University Network, for use with DOS and Commodore 64 computers. To access these courses, students had to use proprietary software and telephones to communicate. With the advent of the Internet and its spread, thanks to local internet service providers, online education took root not only in the U.S. but also in Europe.

The first purely online high school—CALCampus—came into existence in 1995, based in New Hampshire (Origins of CALCampus, n.d.). The institution offered real-time instruction and interaction to students over the Internet. In the early 90s, Open University in the United Kingdom also started to offer the first “real” resource-based online learning courses delivered across Europe. The Netherlands and Germany followed suit, establishing institutions that focus on elearning.

Aside from schools, corporations have also heavily invested in developing technology to improve elearning methods. In 1993, for instance, Cisco pushed an initiative to design practical cost-effective networks for schools (Stanford-Smith & Kidd, 2000 Google Books). This initiative resulted in the creation of the Cisco Network Academy Program, which now has more than 400,000 students across high schools, colleges and universities, and community-based organizations (Cisco Networking Academy Program, n.d.).

Since the 90s, online learning has continued to grow all over the world. According to elearning statistics, in the U.S., the number of students who took at least some of their courses online grew by more than 350,000 from fall 2016 to fall 2017, an increase of 5.7% (Lederman, 2018). Moreover, according to Trines (2018), education trends in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia show that online education is gaining traction in these regions despite technological barriers.

Types of eLearning

Given the broad answer to the question “what is elearning,” educational scientists have identified different types and paradigms of elearning, according to categories such as learning style, delivery method, educational tools, and online course platforms used. The following are the types of elearning used today.

Computer-Managed Learning (CML)

In a computer-managed learning environment, instructors use computers to provide learning objectives and assess learner performance (Day & Payne, 1987). Computer-managed learning systems can fulfill several functions, including generating tests, analyzing the results of these tests, and keeping records of learners’ progress (Sly & Rennie, 1999). The ranking parameters used by these systems allow the learning process to be adjusted according to the individual preferences of students.

Institutions also use CML systems for storing and retrieving teaching aids and tools, such as lecture information, training materials, and curriculum information (Currie & Courduff, 2015).

Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI)

Also referred to as computer-assisted learning, CAI is a type of elearning that uses computers together with traditional teaching. This method includes a wide variety of activities, including drill-and-practice, tutorial, and simulation activities (Cotton, 1991). These activities can be offered by themselves or as supplements to traditional teacher-directed instruction. According to Tamm (2019), most online and traditional schools today use various CAI methods to facilitate skills development in students. Tamm further explains that the primary value of CAI is interactivity, as the method allows students to become more active during the learning process.

Synchronous Online Learning

Through synchronous online learning, groups of students can simultaneously participate in activities in real-time, anywhere they are in the world (Hrastinksi, 2008). This real-time interaction is facilitated by online chat and videoconferencing, which allows students and instructors to interact with each other without delays (Types of Online Learning, n.d.). According to Tamm (2019), this type of community-oriented elearning is one of the quickest growing types of elearning because it eliminates the social isolation and poor teacher-student relationships common in elearning.

Asynchronous Online Learning

In contrast with synchronous online learning, asynchronous elearning methods allow students to study independently at different times and locations, without real-time communication. This self-paced learning approach allows students to have more flexibility in their schedules. Technologies used for asynchronous elearning methods include email, blogs, ebooks, discussion forums, CDs, and DVDs.

Source: The State of Learning and Development 2020

Fixed eLearning

In fixed elearning, the content used during the course of learning does not change once it is created. This means all participating students receive the same content. The material is usually determined by instructors; as such, it cannot be adjusted to adapt the content to the student’s learning pace or preferences. Because of its rigid nature, this type of elearning is often not ideal in elearning environments (Tamm, 2019).

Adaptive eLearning

In adaptive elearning, learning materials are redesigned and adapted to fit the needs of each individual learner. Parameters such as student performance, abilities, and goals are considered so that educational approaches are more student-centered and individualized. According to Shute (2003), technology has advanced to the point where it is possible to implement laboratory-based techniques to assess higher-level skills more effectively and efficiently. The resulting information can further guide the assessment of instructional design processes.

Adamu (2018) further notes that adaptive elearning benefits from artificial intelligence (AI) and the technology’s ability to personalize the learning experience. AI is particularly crucial in knowledge management and retrieval, which in turn serve as core modules of adaptive elearning systems.

Through AI, teaching tools will also be able to identify and focus on areas where learners need improvement (Smith, 2016).

Linear eLearning

eLearning can also be classified by the communication model used. In a linear elearning approach, information is passed from sender to receiver. The time, order, and pace at which the information is received are determined by the sender, and there is no feedback from the receiver to the sender (E-Learning Models Explained, n.d.). Instruction delivered through television, radio, and newspapers is a classic example of linear elearning.

Interactive eLearning

In contrast with linear elearning, interactive elearning enables two-way communication between the parties involved. In this approach, the sender can become the receiver and vice versa. Modern examples include instant messaging and discussion boards or forums (E-Learning Models Explained, n.d.). Through this easier communication model, instructors and students can modify teaching and learning methods as necessary.

Individual eLearning

eLearning can also be classified into its group dynamics. In individual elearning, learners study the material individually and students are expected to meet learning objectives on their own. This mirrors learning practices in traditional classrooms.

There are a number of ways to evaluate or measure students’ performance against learning objectives throughout the learning process. In many massive open online courses such as Coursera, for instance, coursework and exams undergo automated evaluation or peer grading (Layton, 2013).

Collaborative eLearning

Compared to individual elearning, collaborative elearning is a more modern approach. In this method, two or more students engage in the learning process as a group. According to Tamm (2019), collaborative elearning works on the idea that knowledge is best developed in a group setting, where individuals can interact, learn from each other, and play to each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

eLearning Delivery Methods

Technology has allowed for the development of various methods of delivery for elearning to suit the various preferences and needs of learners. Some educators do not even need to pay for systems since the best free LMS are powerful enough to conduct learning. Below are some commonly used delivery methods for elearning.

Computer-Based Training or Web-Based Training

In Computer-Based Training (CBT), learners can access content through media such as CDs and DVDs. CBT is usually run on the learner’s system. Web-Based Training (WBT), on the other hand, uses the internet as a platform. Learning management systems are commonly used in WBT approaches. With either CBT or WBT, courses are self-paced and there is no interaction among instructors and learners. These delivery methods typically work well for adult learners who want to learn new skills (Soni, 2015).

Blended eLearning

Blended elearning combines face-to-face instruction and computer-mediated instruction (Bonk & Graham, 2005). This method supplements in-person instruction with technology such as collaboration software, web-based software, and communication software. According to Oye et al. (2012), blended elearning encourages educational and information review beyond classroom settings. Littlejohn and Pegler (2007) explain that blended elearning facilitates the integration of different spaces for learning and offers flexibility with regards to learners’ schedules.

Mobile eLearning

According to Sharples (2000), the availability of advanced mobile technologies, such as high bandwidth infrastructure and wireless technologies, has also lent itself to the extension of elearning towards mobile elearning. In this elearning approach, handheld computing devices are used to provide access to learning content and information resources. Though the easy availability and affordability of mobile devices can make elearning more accessible, mobile devices’ disk space, screen size, and Internet connectivity features must be taken into consideration with this approach (Soni, 2015).

Despite these reservations, Learning House found in 2019 that 29% of college students use their mobile devices for completing at least some of their course-related activities.

Source: AMR; Learning House

Social eLearning

Social elearning involves the application of social learning principles to the e learning approach. As its name implies, social learning entails learning from and with others. This can occur through direct contact (e.g., face-to-face interactions) and indirect contact (e.g., interactions on social media and discussion forums). According to Chetia (2019), social learning occurs when individuals observe others’ behavior or the consequences of others’ behavior.

With this framework, social elearning entails the use of technologies such as videoconferencing and social media sites to facilitate interactions among learners. Group discussions and question-and-answer sessions also help build up social interactions throughout the learning process (Aubron, 2018).

Game-Based eLearning

Connolly and Stansfield (2006) define game-based elearning as “the use of a computer games-based approach to deliver, support, and enhance teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluation.” Games used for elearning are designed around specific learning objectives and are highly interactive to encourage complete immersion and engagement. Chieta (2019) differentiates gamification from gamified elearning in that, while gamification uses game mechanics and elements to make learning compelling, game-based elearning courses use full-fledged games to help learners achieve their objectives.

Benefits of eLearning

There has been much research into elearning and its benefits, from the perspectives of education and corporate training. Pandey (2013) suggests that there are four main benefits of elearning that can be seen by students: learner control, accessibility, availability, and personalization. With elearning, students can learn at their own pace, from anywhere and at any time. Through delivery methods such as games and social media, elearning also makes the learning process more immersive and interactive.

Moreover, elearning enables relatively faster delivery cycles. According to Gupta (2017), elearning enables lessons and programs to roll out within a few days or weeks. This increased effectiveness also helps students learn more quickly. Beldhuis (2012) also discovered a number of elearning benefits from a corporate standpoint. These benefits include:

  • cost reductions, as elearning lowers travel and meal expenses associated with employee training.
  • modularity, since employees can study only course sections that are relevant to their needs.
  • flexibility and accessibility, as elearning allows learners to choose the time and place to study courses, making training outside of work hours possible.

Online learning methods also have a number of positive effects on the environment. A study by Roy et al. in 2005, done in conjunction with Britain’s Open University, found that the production and provision of distance learning courses consumed 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions than conventional campus-based university courses. The study also explains that the decreased energy consumption and C02 emissions can be attributed to the reduced amount of student travel and economies of scale in the utilization of on-campus resources.

Source: Gallup; NewSchools Venture Fund

Drawbacks of eLearning

Despite the benefits that students and businesses can gain from elearning, these learning approaches have their own pitfalls or challenges that must be considered. Sirohi (2007) states that “the greatest disadvantage is the absence of human touch.” eLearning methods reportedly lack the positive effects of face-to-face interaction in education, which for young individuals also involves personality development.

Meanwhile, Hvorecký (2004) argues that in less developed countries, there are not enough human resources—i.e., qualified instructors—to prepare online courses for students. Technologies such as broadband Internet connections and high-resolution screens also tend to be difficult to find in these countries.

Moreover, a survey by BestColleges found that 24% of online students have concerns about the quality of education they’re getting, as well as academic support.

Top Concerns of Online Students on Online Learning Options

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Source: BestColleges

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eLearning During the COVID Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of schools all over the world, with governments implementing social distancing measures to curtail the spread of the virus. According to figures from UNESCO, 1.2 billion children in 186 countries have been affected by school closures due to the pandemic (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2020).

To mitigate the impact of school closures on students, multiple countries have implemented measures for remote learning and online learning. Many have leveraged technological systems to adapt to the changing times. Elearning tools are not the only ones that became, but curriculum management software, that has made mapping and planning curricula for elearning easier.

The World Bank has been actively cataloging numerous countries’ approaches to utilizing educational technology to support remote learning opportunities. In Argentina, for instance, educational content is delivered through television and radio, with public and private channels broadcasting these programs, which involve lessons facilitated by a teacher and a subject expert (How Countries are Using Edtech, 2020). Meanwhile, in Malaysia, publicly broadcast education television programs are supported by an online learning platform that delivers on-demand content to students.

Moreover, many online learning platforms have started to offer free access to their services in response to heightened demand. BYJU, a Bangalore-based educational technology and online tutoring firm, has become the most highly valued educational technology company after raising $540 million in a fund-raising round (Warrier, 2019).

Despite the rapid rise of elearning across the world, outlooks on the elearning approach and its effectiveness have been mixed. Some believe that the unplanned move to adopt elearning will result in “a poor user experience that is unconducive to sustained growth” (Deka, 2020). On the other hand, educational technology experts opine that online education will eventually become integral to school education (Li & Lalani, 2020).



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