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What is E-Learning?

— by mindflash

Whether it’s delivering K-12 education to children in foreign countries or compliance training to multi-national corporations, e-learning is transforming how information is distributed.

In use for over than a decade, the term e-learning describes a range of information technologies at use in schools and corporations for education and training. In e-learning courses, information is presented over computer networks to instructors and pupils who are often in different physical locations, but all accessing the same materials through their PCs.

The History of E-Learning

E-learning represents a wide range of methods for the electronic delivery of information in order to provide education or online training. So on one end, e-learning can be as simple as the instructional DVD that teaches people how to use their PC. Or it can be as complicated as Blackboard a hefty program used for grading and K-12 education.

A really generous interpretation of the notion of “mobile learning” might trace it back to the invention of the abacus. Otherwise, most of the underlying technologies used in e-learning came to be in 1968, when Douglas Englebart first demonstrated an interactive computing environment. Englebart led groups that invented many aspects of the computer we take for granted today, including the mouse and the graphic user interface. But e-learning’s introduction to the mainstream may have come in a more playful way, in 1978, with the release of the Speak and Spell.

The Internet Stimulates Growth of E-Learning

The rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s served as the catalyst for what has become a massive and diverse e-learning industry today. Now with further advances in computer processing speeds and now mobile computing, a whole host of start-ups are helping tackle online education and training challenges through technology. In fact, a 2011 study by Ambient Insight found that the global market for e-learning products topped $30 billion in 2010, and estimated that it would grow to a nearly $50 billion industry by 2014.

But e-learning is generally comprised of two different subgroups: education and training. At times the methods of delivering course materials and connecting participants may look quite similar. The key differences lie within the goals of each group. Educators are hoping to use e-learning tools to improve the process and reach of secondary and higher education, while trainers seek more efficient methods of training a sometimes-global workforce.

The Future of E-Learning

Rather than heading in a single direction, it may be more accurate to describe e-learning as headed in several directions, each of them exciting. Inventors and investors speak of niches like “mobile learning,” “tablet learning,” “self-paced learning” and “collaboration-based learning,” though each seems like a component of the larger trend of delivering information to people on their own terms.

A hint at the scale of this shift can be seen in Apple’s recent announcement that it would offer tools to deliver textbooks and other course materials (for a significant discount) through its iPad tablet. The company LoudCloud had already released a comprehensive Learning Management System based around the device in December 2011. It’s clear that mobile computing — whether on desktops, laptop PCs, tablets, or smartphones, will play a role in the future of e-learning.

And there are other technological developments affecting the e-learning landscape, as well. Some of these approaches include:

  • Learning Management Systems that integrate more closely with corporate computing environments, or utilize methods of delivery borrowed from social media, including the use of smartphones and tablet computers as platforms.
  • Crowdsourcing parts of the training process to create a more interactive, team-building experience, creating a kind of social learning environment.
  • Using techniques borrowed from the video game industry to reach learners who have grown up immersed in those worlds, a trend sometimes called “Gamification.”

Although it’s easy to focus on the technology required to fuel these trends, it’s much harder to predict how the new distributed, democratized dynamic will change the nature of how or what people are actually learning. That, only time will tell.

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Top image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user algogenius

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