So, What is eLearning?

Don’t Let Different Meanings Confuse You

As CEO of ej4, I get to talk not only to many industry experts but also to clients and prospects as well. So do my sales and marketing teams. One thing we’ve discovered: People use the term “eLearning” differently.

Even though the eLearning industry has been around (arguably) for 20 years, the term emerged slowly and organically. So it’s not really that surprising that folks use the term slightly differently. That’s how most of our language works.

Using a term in different ways is only a problem if people end up talking past each other. That is exactly what can happen when talking with vendors of eLearning solutions. The result is that buyers are not able to compare apples to apples, so to speak. Or they might ask for one thing and end up getting proposals for another.

This is my attempt, then, to get clear on what eLearning is, and on what eLearning solutions are supposed to be. My hope is that, by understanding the different ways the term is used, you will actually find the process of searching for and evaluating eLearning solutions that much easier.


Some Definitions Might Help...

Our industry does not have a lack of nice, concise definitions of eLearning. For example, there’s this one from the State of North Carolina:

“eLearning is learning while utilizing electronic technologies to access educational curriculum outside of a traditional classroom. In most cases, it refers to a course, program or degree delivered completely online.”

Or this one from a competitor:

“Simply put, elearning is training provided via a computer or other digital device, allowing technology to facilitate learning anytime, anywhere.”

But are these definitions enough?


eLearning Can Still Mean So Many Different Things

Outside of these simple definitions, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and implementation. Very different kinds of approaches and technologies can all get lumped in together as eLearning, despite looking and feeling very, very different.

For example, using the above definitions, could you answer the following questions in a straightforward way?

  • Does eLearning require that there be communication with an actual instructor? (Or does it preclude it?)
  • Does eLearning have to have “interactive” elements? (And what are those?)
  • Is eLearning unique to corporate training? Or adult learning? (If an instructor in a high school classroom shows an online video, is that eLearning?)
  • What is the difference between an eLearning video and a run-of-the-mill educational video, like what you might find on YouTube?
  • If your C-suite were to announce that it is investing in eLearning, what would it actually be spending money on? LMS? Software? Video content? Authoring tools? Gamification? eLearning consultants? All of the above?

If you are unsure of your answers to one or more of these questions, don’t feel bad. The industry has changed so rapidly in the past decade, it’s no wonder that these definitions have failed to keep up.

In fact, there’s data showing how differently people from different organizations think about eLearning. We did a survey recently where we asked our clients what they thought eLearning was (among other things). While many of the answers looked the same—almost everyone hit upon something like the definitions above—there were a lot of differences, too. For example:

  • Some people thought of it as a platform or portal, some thought of it as a process, some thought of it as referring to a kind of training content, and still others thought of it as a set of abilities or capabilities.
  • Only 13% of respondents mentioned convenience and/or the ability to access learning material outside of the classroom.
  • Similarly, only 13% of respondents mentioned the ability to access learning at any time, or when convenient for the learner.
  • While everyone mentioned technology in some form or another, what they took the technology to be varied a lot. Some mentioned mobile, some mentioned PCs, some mentioned the internet or online video. One respondent even explained how eLearning could refer to content “on a disc loaded onto a computer.”

My point is that there are a lot of different ways that eLearning is defined. So when a buyer asks around for an eLearning solution, what they have in mind might be very different from what a vendor has in mind.

Likewise, what a given vendor offers might be very useful, but a buyer might prematurely dismiss it simply because the solution has (or lacks) the “eLearning” label, and that means something different than what the buyer thinks it does.


Getting More Specific About What eLearning Is

So how can we all get on the same page? How do we get more specific about what eLearning is?

Here at ej4, we started to take this approach: That eLearning is, first and foremost, a kind of learning experience.

eLearning is not the software or platform itself. It is not games or gamification. It is not social media or social media-like platforms. It is not AI or VR. All of these things might be tools of eLearning, of course. But they are not eLearning itself, just as a hammer and saw are not, by themselves, carpentry.

eLearning is all about learning. eLearning is the use of these tools to engage the learner so that they watch, learn, remember, and ultimately change their behavior. eLearning happens through a series of learning experiences and results in measurably improved performance. The technology is there to facilitate something that has been happening to human brains for, well, for millennia.

If we start looking at eLearning in this way, can we start answering those more specific questions I posed above?


Answering Questions About eLearning Solutions

Does eLearning require that there be communication with an actual instructor? (Or does it preclude it?)

eLearning does not require or preclude communication with an instructor. Having instructors on hand to answer questions and recommend further learning opportunities does lend itself nicely to a blended learning approach, which can be quite beneficial for trainers, learners, and the organization at large.

Does eLearning have to have “interactive” elements? (And what are those?)

The word “interactive” is used very loosely in the industry. In educational settings, it often means having a chat room so that students and professors can communicate in real time. Some solutions providers will slap that label on a product just because there is a button the user has to press halfway through a video. Is that truly interactive?

Whether “interactive” or not, eLearning has to be engaging. Going through an awkward role-play session with an instructor is certainly interactive, but it’s not always engaging. Likewise, clicking through a slideshow presentation online with a talking head does involve the user, but again, it’s not that engaging.

Now consider ej4’s own videos. We have professional presenters delivering content in front of a green screen, along with eye-catching, visual elements designed by creative professionals. The content and delivery are both designed according to best practices in instructional design and adult learning theory. Sure, these might not technically be interactive in the way that people usually think. But they are certainly engaging, by design. And they certainly count as tools for eLearning.

Is eLearning unique to corporate training? Or adult learning? (If an instructor in a high school classroom shows a video, is that eLearning?)

“eLearning” leaves open what the context is and who the learner is. That’s why we tend to use words like “corporate eLearning” and “corporate training” in our posts, to make it clear that our expertise is in teaching adults in the context of the workplace. Adult learning theory is at the heart of what we do.

What is the difference between an eLearning video and a run-of-the-mill educational video, like what you might find on YouTube?

This gets us to a bigger question: What does it mean when we use “eLearning” as an adjective? What makes something an eLearning X, as opposed to just an X?

Again, it comes back to experience and outcomes. Anyone can produce a video and stick it on YouTube. It’s when you create a video according to the most up-to-date principles of instructional design and incorporate them into a systematic learning program, that you have created an eLearning tool. And when it comes to learner engagement, there is a big difference between illustrated animated videos and those that feature live presenters and creative graphics.

If your C-suite were to announce that it is investing in eLearning, what would it actually be spending money on? Software? Video content? Authoring tools? Gamification? eLearning consultants? All of the above?

First and foremost, they should be investing in results. What are the learning outcomes that the C-suite wants to achieve? What’s the ROI?

There are many possible tools they could use to do this. Microlearning videos. Off-the-shelf content. A robust learning management system. Authoring tools. The list goes on. In the end, though, these tools should come from a partner who understands learning ecosystems as a whole, and who is willing to learn about your organization in order to help you best implement the best eLearning tools for you.


Further Reading

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