E-learning definition

15 Jun 2012

An agreed definition of e-learning has proved to be elusive, until now, writes Gerry White in DERN.

Prior to the term e-learning becoming common in education, terms such as computer-assisted learning/training, computer-based learning/training and many more were used.

At the beginning of the 21st century, as use of the internet in education increased, the term e-learning materialised and loosely referred to the integration of education and information and communications technology (ICT). However, an agreed definition of e-learning proved to be elusive in a rapidly changing education and technology environment.

A succinct, short and recently published paper, Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An approach to the Conceptual Framework is both timely and very useful for students and researchers of e-learning. The article published in The International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) summarises an examination of the literature and then describes a discussion process by which an inclusive definition of e-learning was agreed by the scientific community. The agreed definition of e-learning is elegant, encompassing and dynamic.

E-learning can be argued to be a natural extension of disciplines such as educational technology and distance education, although ‘the discussion of the definition and practices of e-learning focuses on the intersection of education, teaching and learning with ICT’ (p. 146).

The researchers noted four distinct perspectives in the literature that shaped e-learning definitions. They reflected the professional approaches of different disciplines such as education, computer science, and communications technology, and individual or corporate interests (p. 146). The four different parts of e-learning that were identified from the literature review were: technology-driven, delivery-system-oriented, communication-oriented, and educational-paradigm-oriented (p. 148). The technology-driven advocates focused on the use of technology for learning whereas the delivery advocates viewed the accessibility of resources as more important. Communication focused proponents argued that communication, interactivity and collaboration were the keys to understanding e-learning and the researchers focused on the educational paradigm view of ‘e-learning as a new way of learning or as an improvement on an existing educational paradigm’ (p. 149).

The neatness of this research is that an inclusive definition of e-learning was researched from the literature, discussed by experts and agreed. Although education and technology are constantly changing and evolving, the mere fact that an agreed and accepted definition of e-learning is available can provide a sound basis for developing an e-learning framework and stimulating much needed research into e-learning. There is a need to understand the quickly changing nature of the uses of technology for teaching and learning, collaborative learning, individual learning, facilitating achievement and e-learning as a new learning/training model, (p. 152) all of which should be included in a definition of e-learning.

The definition of e-learning proposed in Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An approach to the Conceptual Framework could be used as a ‘common framework for enhancing theory development and empirical research …[as well as] … developing further research in identifying e-learning applications models’ (p. 154). In addition, the definition of e-learning could be used to analyse teaching and learning to identify the e-learning models that are being used in order to understand the ‘key factors for better and more effective use of this type of teaching and learning’ (p. 147).

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An approach to the Conceptual Framework is a very timely and useful piece of work in defining e-learning that acknowledges the profound changes occurring in education as it moves to adopt new ways of teaching and learning.



Gerry White is Principal Research Fellow: Teaching & Learning using Digital Technologies, Australian Council for Educational Research

This article was first published on the Digital Education Research Network (DERN)

Read the full article on DERN (free registration required)

Photo: Flickr / Olga Diez


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