Defining eLearning

It is generally accepted by now that eLearning provides several advantages to most any organization’s training initiatives. From cost-savings to enhanced retention, eLearning is actually recognizing those goals and continues to hold great promise…but what exactly is “eLearning”?

eLearning is commonly understood as ‘training facilitated by a computer’, but the definitions are wide and varied. Can eLearning be closely defined? Does it need to be? With the improved capabilities of mobile devices, the term ‘mLearning’ has arisen…which brings about another discussion on best-practices and how it differs from eLearning. For the sake of this article, we’ll stick with eLearning as the overall umbrella term.

If a sales representative needs to know the latest product specifications and receives the new PDF brochure on his iPhone, is that eLearning? Sure, why not? He learned something on his mobile computing device – meeting several definitions. Whether web-based educational content is accessed via an online university, a corporate LAN, or a simple web search – it can all be ‘eLearning’…though surely various experts and groups prefer less nebulous definition.

On the other side, there’s well-structured, web-based courseware requiring logins and authentication, tracking progress and interaction, and providing detailed reports (largely provided through LMS delivery). Such a production is certainly ‘eLearning’…

Ultimately, regardless of delivery medium, the overall requirement is the eLearning content be effective; the new knowledge required for whatever the related task is transferred and retained, whether the:

  • Learner reads a document online
  • Learner reviews a web-based Powerpoint file
  • Learner ‘turns the pages’ through a simple LMS-delivered lesson
  • Learner interacts with an engaging LMS-delivered course
  • Learner is immersed in a virtual world
  • Learner plays a game
  • Leaner participates in an online discussion

The depth and complexity of the courseware doesn’t really matter. As long as a computer or related device was involved and learning occurs (and, more ideally, actual learning objectives are met) the courseware should be considered “eLearning”. Some definitions do attempt to rein this in a bit by insisting the term inherently requires interactivity or some sort of tracking (i.e. SCORM, xAPI, AICC, etc); that’s a great ideal…but not necessarily a hard rule.

Now, how effective the information transfer was, that is certainly a more important question. Instructional efficacy and best-practices certainly vary among different types of eLearning and are dependent on the content, objectives, and target audience. Integrating interactivity (beyond clicking ‘Next’!) is definitely good practice to increase engagement and facilitate retention; interactivity in a variety of forms makes for ‘better’ eLearning.

But that’s not to say converting a Powerpoint with Presenter and uploading it to an LMS is not eLearning. It may not be exciting, but if it’s delivered online and (most importantly) meets the organizations goals, the definition holds water. However, let’s not settle. If we can make an eLearning piece more engaging, if we can avoid a learner’s groan when they start the lesson, let’s do so by all means possible!

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