Why call it 'eLearning' when it is clearly NOT eLearning?

This has been brewing for some time now. I don’t apologies in advance if you see yourself in what I’m about to say.

You know what really gets my goat? It’s when people keep talking about eLearning when they actually mean ‘distance’ learning, or ‘online delivery’, or computer-based training (CBT). In the same way that everything has suddenly become ‘2.0’ (Web 2.0, Learning 2.0, Academia 2.0, University, 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, etc, etc) they think that by including the ‘e’ before the word it means the same as paper post (mail) to electronic post (email).

Do you know the difference, would you like a recap?

Distance Learning is defined as a “branch of education in which teachers and students are at remote locations rather than in direct contact.” [Google definition] This can include instances where materials are printed and posted to the students (e.g. Open University).

Computer-based Training (CBT) and Web-based Learning (WBT) is defined as an “interactive instructional approach in which the computer, taking the place of an instructor, provides a series of stimuli to the student.” [Google definition] This is often a complete ‘module’ or ‘subject’ loaded to a PC or a CD ROM, delivered via a web browser but not necessarily online, and the student works away in their own time or tested using CD ROM (e.g. Driving Standards Agency Theory test).

Online Learning is defined as a context “associated with content readily accessible on a computer. The content may be on the Web or the Internet, or simply installed on a CD-ROM or the computer hard disk.”

eLearning “can be used to deliver online courses and/or establish online learning communities. It supports flexible learning anywhere, anytime.” [Google definition] The term often encompasses all the above styles and techniques, but also goes so much further than just basic ‘study-materials-delivered-by-electronic-means’.

By putting the ‘e’ in front of ‘Learning’ just because you used a computer to type it up or send it to the student does NOT make it eLearning! Please stop using the term unless you know what it actually means.

eLearning utilises all the power of the web to not only deliver the materials as text, images, interactive flash or audio/video, etc, but also for tests (MCQs), assignments (report, essays, projects, etc), collaboration (discussion boards, wiki, etc), reflective journals (blog, etc), feedback, grades, etc.

So what is the difference;

eLearning is all about the ability to update and keep the materials fresh and vibrant; once the materials are loaded to a disc for posting out, they’re out of date and redundant (Distance Learning). It is also about joining other learners online, in an environment that is enabling them to engage each other as well as the instructor/trainer; the community.

CBT and WBT is often a module or nugget of learning materials pre-loaded to the specific machine the learner sits. It can be delivered over the Internet and Intranet and does not engage the learner in any interaction past the ‘click to continue’ or small MCQ. CBT is mostly used in large corporations where the learner can sit at their machine and take a 20 minute lesson on health and safety instead of hiring a H&S executive to give a 2 hour talk; saving time AND money.

Online Learning relates more to online help, online documentation, and online services, than to the act of learning and gaining feedback and access to a Community.

So please use the term eLearning wisely. It is a wonderful term that can encompass so much but is often used badly to simply convey an idea or technique that doesn’t befit the term;

“Though eLearning, Web-based Learning, and Distance Learning are all related to each other, they have significant differences. Failing to recognise the fine differences between these concepts limits the pace of development of expertise, precludes precise communication with team members and stakeholders, and often reflects a poor understanding of available alternative solutions.”
E-learning, Online Learning, Web-based Learning, or Distance Learning Unveiling the Ambiguity in Current Terminology

  • John Thompson

    Sorry but I disagree. “E-learning” is an inclusive over-arching umbrella, which includes all forms of “electronic” learning. DL, CBT, WBT, OL, etc. are subsets of e-learning.

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  • I’d have to agree with the previous comment. These terms don’t have any accepted definition and ‘Google’ isn’t it. eLearning could be taken to mean learning via electronic means (which is what the ‘e’ means). I agree with your position on the 2.0 moniker, but eLearning in my mind is broader than your definitions.

  • Kia ora David!

    I am a distance teacher. I am employed at The Correspondence School, Wellington, New Zealand.

    I concur with much of what you say with a few provisos.

    Distance learners can use CBT and they’re still distance learners. You are right. It’s not really elearning no more than watching TV, a video or DVD could be considered elearning. I am aware that some people (experts?) would call what I’ve just described ‘elearning’.

    Elearning can also be distance learning. In most instances where elearning is used appropriately, the term distance learning can also apply.

    If I could draw a Venn diagram in a comment on your blog I would. Distance learning would be a circle in the universal set of all learning methods. Looped into that circle would be elearning.

    That means some distance learners are also elearners. Some elearners are not necessarily distance learners, and some distance learners are certainly not elearners.

    BUT . . .

    The term elearning has become a moveable feast, I’m afraid. Even CBT (learning from a DVD/TV/video/video-conferencing/taped program/hard-wired program) is shoved into the category of elearning. I am loath to concede that any learning exclusively by these methods alone or even blended-with-other-paper-based-distance-learning techniques is elearning.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  • eLearning, as a term, is a ‘moveable fest’ and I fully apprecuiate it. What annoys me is simply when someone incorrectly uses the term to try and ‘prove’ that they are eLearners when all they are doing is emailing a PDF or PowerPoint file to a learner. That is not eLearning.

  • Check!

  • Jay Cross, who seems to have coined the term “e-learning” certainly did envision something like what Stephen Downes and Bryan Alexander later called “e-learning 2.0”. the opposite of CBT/WBT.

    but,let’s face it, “e-learning” *has* aquired a meaning, and this is “top-down managed learning”, with clearly separated roles & rights, with LMSs, quizzes and – sometimes – embedded WBTs. the term has been burned, no chance reclaiming it.

  • Patrick

    But ELearning Sounds sexier. I’m using it dammit.