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What is e-Learning?

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

The term "e-learning" gets thrown around more and more these days. But what is e-learning? Even more importantly, what is good e-learning?

Most people - both educators and researchers - understand the "e" to mean "electronic", like in "e-mail". Some researchers consider the "e" to mean "enhanced" - so they consider e-learning to be "enhanced learning"; that is, "technology-enhanced learning".

Whichever formal definition you prefer, it involves learning with digital technology. ANY learning involving digital technology. That includes self-paced, self-directed learning. Have you ever watched a YouTube video to learn a new skill? E-learning also extends through to more formal learning programmes, for example LinkedIn Learning, or a corporate staff training programme, or gaining online qualifications through a university.

E-Learning includes both fully-online learning (eg a distance learning course) and blended learning. Pachler & Daly use this definition of blended learning in their book Key Issues in e-Learning: Theory and Practice:

"[Blended learning is] a hybrid form of e-learning in which web-based resources are used to supplement or enhance face-to-face teaching."

For the vast majority of educators wanting to leverage the benefits of digital technology in their teaching, blended learning is the way to go. But there's more to blended learning than simply adding digital tools on top of a traditional 'physical classroom' teaching programme. This has been discussed since the early days of e-learning. Garrison & Kanuka wrote in their 2004 research:

"The real test of blended learning is the effective integration of... face-to-face and Internet technology such that we are not just adding on to the existing dominant approach or method. ...A blended learning design represents a significant departure from either of these approaches. It represents a fundamental reconceptualization and reorganization of the teaching and learning dynamic."

Blended learning requires a shift; a change in approach; a re-shuffle of 'normal'.

And it's worth it.

This US study looked at roughly 1000 research articles, and found that online learning is "modestly better" than face to face instruction, but blended learning is better than either on their own:

"[blended learning] had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction."

So what is good e-learning?

In a nutshell: activities that foster thinking. Hence our name!

Digital technology makes repetitive practice more fun than a worksheet, but as we know, there's more to deep learning than drilling a skill. We'll explore more detailed frameworks and models to guide our understanding of "good e-learning" in other articles, but for now let's just sum it up by saying that if your e-learning activity ticks one or several of these boxes, you're on the right track:

  • Fosters thinking at a deeper level - making connections between skills

  • Encourages students to reflect on their learning

  • Encourages students to articulate their understanding of a skill or topic, in their own words

  • Encourages students to collaborate with others

  • Allows for quality feedback: from the teacher, and from peers

  • Involves students creating something, rather than just consuming content that has been created for them

We are passionate about equipping & empowering teachers to adopt effective e-learning practice. Check out our other articles for more support, or get in touch!


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