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e-learning (online learning)

Contributor(s): Ben Lutkevich

E-learning (sometimes called web-based training) is anywhere, any-time instruction delivered over the internet or a corporate intranet to browser-equipped learners. Contrary to traditional learning methods, e-learning allows students, employees in training and casual learners to participate in an organized learning experience regardless of their physical location.

Why e-learning is important

E-learning methods and technology are important both for educating students and for the professional development of employees in the workforce.

In the mid-2000s, the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) estimated that 75% of the U.S. workforce would need retraining within the coming five years in order to keep pace with industry needs and increasing global competition. Hewlett-Packard estimated that the half-life of a bachelor's degree in engineering could be as short as 18 months.

Today, the need for employees to keep pace with an increasingly rapid evolution of technology has only grown. For example, expert coders, hardware developers and online security professionals alike anticipate the advent of quantum computing to create a massive shift in the way modern businesses operate. This strongly necessitates new workforce training and education as well as new methods of delivering it that allow increased adaptability in the rapidly changing environment.

Higher education institutions are also implementing e-learning methods more frequently with the increased use of internet-capable electronic devices inside and outside the classroom, as well as the implementation of online classes. A 2017 report estimated that 91 percent of student enrollments and 87 percent of institutions rely on learning management systems (LMS), the specific software applications or web-based technology used for e-learning.

E-learning platforms today offer this increased adaptability for learners and teachers alike.

It is estimated that by 2025, the online course and e-learning market will be worth around $325 billion.

How e-learning works

Instruction can be delivered by a combination of static methods, such as learning portals, hyperlinked pages, screen cam tutorials, streaming audio/video and live Web broadcasts; and interactive methods, such as threaded discussions, chats and desktop video conferencing.

In its formative years, e-learning tools primarily enabled the delivery of learning material directly from teacher to learner. Now, the e-learning experience has evolved to enable more multi-directional communication using increasingly interactive tools. Students, employees and independent learners alike have greater freedom in choosing how they receive and respond to e-learning content, and any number of peers can be involved.

There are three main criteria an enterprise should follow to help ensure an effective e-learning program, regardless of the specific platform they end up using:

  • The experience should be mobile-friendly. The use of mobile phones is growing in the enterprise. Phones can be used to send out training prompts, reminders or congratulations on training achievements.
  • The experience should implement social features. By using social media, or a platform that emulates social media's basic features, learners are given a platform to respond to training efforts or general company updates, as well as communicate with their peers and employers.
  • The experience should utilize a variety of different mediums to suit diverse learning styles, including quizzes, infographics, podcasts, demonstrations and narrative-based training.

Types of e-learning

There are two primary models of Web-based instruction: synchronous -- instructor-facilitated -- and asynchronous -- self-directed and self-paced. Basically, synchronous e-learning requires all the participants to be present, albeit virtually, at the same time, whereas asynchronous e-learning does not.

Synchronous versus asynchronous e-learning systems
A comparison of synchronous versus asynchronous e-learning systems

Examples of synchronous e-learning methods include the use of scheduled and timed online tests, virtual classrooms, web conferencing technology or interactive shared whiteboards that learners can use to collaborate. Examples of asynchronous e-learning methods include the use of a message boards, discussion groups and self-paced online courses.

Advantages and disadvantages

Enthusiasts feel that web-based instruction is the perfect solution to meet the needs of life-long learners because it is available on demand, does not require travel and is cost-efficient. Learners can continue to access material throughout their life as the subject they are learning about evolves. Web-based training and e-learning enable greater flexibility in how the learner consumes information and greater adaptability to new available information.

Critics point out that web-based training is a good alternative for independent, self-motivated students, but technical issues and the need for human contact limit its usefulness for students with other learning styles. For example, a learner utilizing an asynchronous e-learning method might find themselves unable to successfully complete an e-learning course without the added structure of a deadline or the instant response to questions that a synchronous e-learning or traditional learning method provides. Another disadvantage of using e-learning methods, especially on free and easily accessible resources, is that sometimes the quality and credibility of the content or the teacher is not transparent.

E-learning platforms

There are a variety of e-learning platforms, both synchronous and asynchronous, that users can implement in educational, business or independent environments. One commonly known staple of web-based training is the use of PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoints are used for a large majority of business-to-business (B2B) training today.  

The use of learning management systems is almost ubiquitous. These powerful software suites enable digital learning by administering e-learning courses, online examinations and analyzing student performance data. A few examples of these platforms are:

  • Moodle
  • Blackboard Learn
  • Canvas
  • Sakai
  • Schoology

Learning management systems are also prevalent in the enterprise. The best corporate LMSes are scalable, customizable, goal-oriented and user-friendly. Some of the best enterprise-level LMSes are:

  • Adobe Captivate Prime
  • Docebo LMS
  • Looop
  • TalentLMS
  • iSpring Learn
  • Northpass
  • eFront

Social media also provides widely useful avenues for e-learning. Social media has become a popular learning tool in part because services like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn are second nature to many users.

These platforms are suitable for bringing communities of learners together and allowing them to share e-learning content. Facebook and LinkedIn users can create groups to share information and ideas, and members of the groups can communicate freely about the shared material. Groups created on LinkedIn might be perceived to have an added level of credibility because users display their career credentials on their profiles. Twitter can be used to connect learning communities over a specific topic or event by utilizing a hashtag. YouTube users can also post and access educational content for free on YouTube, as well as comment on and rate the videos.

LinkedIn also has a paid platform for e-learning embedded within it called LinkedIn Learning which features over 1,000 business courses. The topics of these courses vary from web development to digital marketing. Business professionals can pay a monthly fee to use these courses to keep their skills up to date.

Independent learners can also take advantage of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on the web. MOOCs are courses of study made available to a large group of people over the internet, usually for free. Often MOOC courses are patterned after top tier universities, such as Harvard and Yale, which is great for learners who want quality training on a given topic for free. Users can log into the MOOC's website and sign up for a given course. Certain MOOCs may charge a student looking to earn a specific certificate for the completion of their coursework. Some popular MOOC platforms include:

  • Coursera
  • edX
  • FutureLearn 

Other platforms, such as Udemy and Skillshare, are similar to a MOOC in that they are massively available online. However, they are different in that they charge the user and focus more on practical engagement with material as opposed to passive learning methods, such as lectures that come with more university-centric MOOCs. No matter the platform, e-learning is a flexible, adaptable way for professionals and students alike to bolster their skills.

This was last updated in January 2020

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