Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is e-learning?

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One of the main difficulties about explaining what I work with is the terminology. Over the years we have created a confusing profusion of terms to describe learning with the help of information technology: e-learning, distance learning, net-based learning, computer-assisted learning, flexible learning, blended learning, technology enhanced learning - the list goes on. None of these terms has been properly defined and the same term can mean different things to different people. We who work in the field can have lengthy discussions around these concepts and I've seen many texts that are highly inconsistent in terminology (I'm no doubt responsible for a few!). So if we have problems adequately defining our own terminology, just imagine how confusing it all is for those colleagues we wish to influence.

Therefore I was pleased to find an article attempting to reach a definitive definition of the term e-learning. It is entitled Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual Framework (International Review of Research in Open and Distance LearningVol 13 no 2, 2012) and has been written by Albert SangràDimitrios Vlachopoulos, and Nati Cabrera (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain). They have carried out a multi-stage Delphi survey of 33 leading experts in the field from 16 countries to try and reach a consensus on a definition for the term. They identified first four definition perspectives:

  • Technology-based definitions that focused on tools and applications
  • Delivery-based definitions that see e-learning as a means of delivering content
  • Communication-based definitions stressing interactivity and collaboration
  • Education-based definitions that emphasize how the use of technology enhances teaching and learning 

Each of these is a valid perspective, depending on the user's viewpoint and the trick is to find a definition that somehow encapsulates all four. At the end of the survey the following definition was reached:

"E-learning is an approach to teaching and learning, representing all or part of the educational model applied, that is based on the use of electronic media and devices as tools for improving access to training, communication and interaction and that facilitates the adoption of new ways of understanding and developing learning."

The respondents still had a number of minor reservations about this definition so it cannot be seen as final but it certainly goes a long way to capturing the wide scope of the term. The main conclusion of the article is that the difficulties of agreeing on an official definition of e-learning (and the profusion of alternative or related terms) is because the field is still developing so rapidly that a fixed definition is thereby unrealistic.

"After the analysis of the contributions of the participating experts, the research arrived at the general conclusion that e-learning is part of the new dynamic that characterises educational systems at the start of the 21st century, resulting from the merge of different disciplines, such as computer science, communication technology, and pedagogy, since all the collected definitions contained characteristics of more than one discipline. Consequently, the concept of e-learning can be expected to continue to evolve for a long time. In today’s world, learning needs change very quickly and the concept and functions of e-learning must continuously be adapted to these needs."

We'll just have to keep discussing and fine-tuning our definitions for a few more years though I hope that someday we can throw away the e's and discuss learning (with the e part completely integrated).


  1. That is, along with the diversity of theories, some conflicting with each other, the main problem for the formalization of the components and relationships in the educational field and therefore one of the biggest challenges in implementing the development of virtual environments in Education . The domains involved must do two things (ICT and Education) to solve the problem: application of descriptive techniques of representation, such as ontologies (but not only), and more specific and more formal educational theories (where possible).

  2. Many of these terms can be explained and understood through common sense

  3. a nice foundational blog post Thanks! ;-)