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Getting started

E-learning is now growing from unruly adolescence into maturity. It is used to teach a wide range of subjects from Anglo Saxon to Artificial Intelligence. It is no longer bedeviled by the high production values of early days which made it uneconomic, and emphasis on re-use means less reinvention of the wheel. A good proportion of higher education institutions now have dedicated staff and, in the UK, e-learning specialists, referred to as learning technologists, have their own professional association and possibilities for certification ().

What is e-Learning and where is it going?

E-learning is also referred to as learning technology, and these two words sum it up: it is information and communications technology (ICT) applied to learning. It is used in a wide range of educational settings: schools, colleges, universities and the workplace. Here we are concerned with its use in colleges and universities.

From the UK Association of Learning Technologists (ALT):

"Learning technology is the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching, and assessment."

From a report by the Learning and Teaching Support Unit:

"E-learning is the...term used to describe the diverse use of information and communications technologies to support and enhance learning, teaching and assessment - from resources-based learning (in which students carry out face-to-face tasks supplemented by a range of online resources) to fully online courses." (Littlejohn and Higginson, 2003)

The use of technology in education is not new – an early example is the Open University's use of television to transmit its lectures. Ideas around educational technology (as it was then mostly called) started to surface in the 1980s with the advent of desktop computers, and the realization of what could be done with the interactive and multimedia capabilities of PCs. The advent of the web put the C in ICT and facilitated communication with others as opposed to one-to-one interaction with a computer.

Currently, the Web is entering into its second generation and e-learning is embracing the new Web 2 social networking, authoring and wi-fi technologies. Learning technologists are however keen to emphasise the first word in their title as much as the second, and delegates to the most recent ALT conference (September 2006) were told that they must 'fall in love with people and out of love with technology'. Some key influences on the current environment for e-learning are:

The changing nature of the Internet

  • Increasing globalization which means that students have access to a wide range of thinkers including innovators from China, India and southeast Asia (Horizon Report, 2007).
  • A democratization and amateurization of authority – trends such as wikipaedia give rise to notions of 'collective intelligence' and blogging brings authorship to all, whilst there is talk of new forms of peer review for scholarship.
  • The growth of wi-fi makes ubiquitous computing and connection possible, with the result that we expect 24/7 access, anywhere.
  • Our use of the Internet has become both more personal and more social. We publish information about ourselves, and we look for old friends and new. New communities have grown up who network around these technologies, reminiscent of the concept of community of practice put forward by Etienne Wenger in the 1990s (Downey, 2006).

Economic and demographic factors

  • Continuing pressure on the higher education purse motivates the quest for new forms of delivery, including distance education.
  • The 18-21 year old student is no longer the norm – many students are mature, or working whilst studying, or both. This makes it difficult to generalize about technological abilities: the 'digital native' generation of school leavers use portable devices not just as phones, but also for e-mail, video, music etc., whilst the older generation may be more cautious in their use. At the same time, the fact that the former are technically savvy does not make them information literate, whilst technology provides the means to communicate with student who spend a lot of time off campus.

Why use e-Learning?

Because e-learning is pedagogically effective in certain situations! You must be sure that these include your situation – using it just because others are is probably as risky as jumping on any bandwagon. E-learning however has certain general advantages, in particular:

  • It increases access - you are no longer reliant on learners being in place at a certain time.
  • It encourages a greater degree of active learning. Well planned, e-learning is less dependent on the 'teacher as authority' and engages learners in activities where they build up their own knowledge.
  • It facilitates collaborative learning.
  • It enables access to a range of high quality resources, some of which are multimedia based which itself provides rich, sensory learning.

Tutors have different 'drivers' behind their use of e-learning:

  • Institutional policy - for example, the institution has invested in a VLE and wants to encourage its use.
  • The individual faculty member is particularly keen on technology, and using it for teaching seems natural.
  • A particular learning or teaching 'problem' presents itself, to which technology can provide a solution.

The tutor responsible for an introductory economics course wanted to ensure that her large class understood key terms, and know what they did not understand. She therefore instigated a series of tests involving computer-administrated multiple choice tests. She was then able to focus particularly on areas which people repeatedly got wrong.

It is important to understand that e-learning may not offer the total solution. A recent trend is to go away from the idea of totally online courses and move towards blended learning (according to Littlejohn and Higginson, 2003, rated higher by students than other forms of delivery). In blended learning e-learning, is combined with face-to-face, resource-based etc. according to what it fit for purpose.

E-learning is more likely to be successful if there is commitment at all levels of an organization. Top level commitment is necessary to ensure that the necessary technological infrastructure (VLEs etc.) are in place, and that faculty are giving encouragement and the necessary training, to say nothing of startup time for course development. Full commitment throughout the organization, with all faculty participating, is also important, as is the availability of the necessary support from technologists and instructional designers.

What are the technologies?

It is convenient to consider the technologies in three 'generations', broadly following the development of the Internet.

First generation

These are the technologies which were developed in the mid 80s to mid 90s, and depend on IT rather than ICT - in other words, the computer is the teacher and source of the learning experience. The skill lies in designing the learning activity and using the pre-programmed feedback to good effect.

Computer assisted assessment (CAA)

This is one of the earliest forms of e-learning and uses objective tests which are questions with a set number of responses which the learner selects and on which he or she receives feedback. The commonest type of question is the multiple choice, for example:

Image: multiple choice example

There are however a large number of possible question types, which include true/false, match, hotspot. Anyone who doubts the sophistication of this approach could do well to look at some of the examples of questions for the GMAT. Online assessment is an idea which has lasted due to its convenience and motivational value. A good, though dated, resource is . More recent information can be seen on .

Computer assisted learning (CAL)

This normally refers to a piece of educational software produced for use on a computer which combines some form of quiz or CAA (see above) with instructional material in a variety of media - text, sound, graphics, video, simulation etc. (The use of different media is known as multimedia.) The format will be structured and students will navigate through the material in a series of guided steps.

Audio and video conferencing

The use of audio and visual communication, via phone lines or the web. The most common application is when lectures are video conferenced in real or delayed time to an audience who is not present.

Simulations and microworlds

As the name suggests, a simulation builds a model of the real world. Pilots use simulations to learn how to fly, for instance. Microworlds are simulations applied to a case study, for example some economics software sets up scenarios and allows people to play with the parameters.

Second generation technologies

The advent of the Internet, with its communication possibilities, allowed e-learning to find its full potential. The late 1990s saw the advent of powerful learning software systems which aimed to support a university's entire learning and ICT requirements.

Virtual learning environments (VLEs)

These are pieces of software which are intended for an online environment, and which sit on a central server and create course web pages. They combine content delivery with facilities for discussion, for uploading of assignments and retrieving marks, and for tracking student progress. The conference facilities use threading, making it easy to following the discussion. Also referred to as Course Management Systems (CMS).

In the 1990s, the software companies that managed to create such platforms were very powerful, but eventually suffered from too much competition not only with each other but also with free systems such as Moodle (). Now the two most powerful VLEs have merged – Blackboard and WebCT – see . All VLE systems, however, are suffering with the onset of social software (see below).

Managed learning environments (MLEs)

VLEs which also link to other parts of the organization's management information system, such as Finance or Admissions.

Computer mediated communication (CMC)

This term is used for communication between dispersed people via computers, often in software that supports discussion (see above). It can be synchronous (time bound – cf. chat) and asynchronous (time free). Use of CMC in learning is also referred to as Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).

Third generation technologies

These follow the changing trends in the web discussed above and some of the main ones are described below.


A form of assessment based on a portfolio, submitted electronically in stead of by paper. See


Based on a desire to get away from the reinventing the wheel tendency which bedeviled early e-learning, these involve building collections of learning objects and learning materials which can be repurposed. See

Mobile learning

The use of mobile phones and PDAs in learning is increasing. The former can be used to send text and picture messages to web sites (specially created and known as media boards); the latter have powers not too dissimilar to laptops with the advantage that they can be used anywhere. They are still finding their 'killer application' in higher education, however they may have some potential when information on the Internet is needed in a remote location, such as on a field trip, or in a hospital. London Metropolitan University has used PDAs to teach programming. See

Social networks

These are blogs, wikis and other forms of software which facilitate discussion and exchange, often in a much more personal way than traditional VLE software. When students blog, they find themselves automatically linked in to a whole community which is open to all, not just those who are signed up to a discussion forum. Downes (2006) cites the example of a Grade 5 student who wrote a review of a circus, and received a response from a performer.


Simulations and microworlds have been used in education since the 1980s and games are based on a similar concept. They stimulate motivation and engagement, both huge factors in learning. The University of Essex Department of Computing has produced a game which helps teach students about software agents. Students found that the simulation helped them to put principles into practice in a fun environment, and therefore gain a deeper experience (Fasli and Michalakopoulos, 2006).

What is the pedagogy?

Or, more bluntly, will it change the way I teach? Opinions vary about this, from those who believe that e-learning give rise to a whole new pedagogy to those who maintain that good teaching is good teaching, and that the pedagogy is the same whether or not technology is used. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, and depends on how consciously the tutor thinks about the pedagogy of his or her teaching.

The oft quoted remark about teaching with technology is that 'The sage on the stage becomes the guide on the side'. What is meant is that the teaching will depend less on the tutor's lectures, the dominant method of teaching at university for the last century or so, and more on resources, mostly electronic, which may or may not have been constructed by the tutor, or discussion between peers. The tutor moves from sole deliverer of the teaching to a member of a team, comprising instructional design experts and technical support.

Active learning and constructivism

E-learning has moved from being content driven to being activity-driven. Learners are encouraged to carry out their own research and formulate their own ideas.

Some examples of activities:

  • Find out about how [a particular industry] markets product/services by reading the following resources.
  • Find out about how [a particular industry] markets product/services by researching into a particular representative company.
  • Come up with a marketing plan for a particular product/service representative of [a particular industry].

This particular approach is known as constructivism: the student, instead of taking on the received wisdom of the tutor, 'constructs' his or her own understanding of the topic, often by means of a particular exercise as in the examples given above.

Social learning

Knowledge is not only constructed individually: much weight is put on the social construction of knowledge, particularly when people are using, for example, online conferencing to work together on a group project or discuss a particular topic. Here, the collective takes on a pedagogical role, with learning from peers as well as tutors.

Peer learning is especially relevant in postgraduate courses where students are experienced in the practical side of their field and look to education for the theoretical; this can provide a rich form of learning for all sides as students learn from one another and academics learn about application of concepts from students and can develop new avenues of research. This links with Wenger's concept, mentioned earlier, of community of practice. (See /)

Online learning and the role of the tutor

The web has made it possible to hold seminars online. However, conditions are different in an environment where you have no visual clues from body language. You need to be aware of this, and of how it affects your special role as tutor. You will need to lay down ground rules and actively encourage students to seek clarification, whilst making sure that participation across the group is even in the same way that you would in a face to face tutorial. Online seminars work best when given some sort of structure in the form of a particular task, together with particular requirements for participation.

This area has been hugely researched and written about, especially by Gilly Salmon (2004).

Multi-sensory learning

The visual and multimedia aspects of the Internet, and CD-ROM, give rise to possibilities of sensory learning. In particular, dual coding theory (Paivio, 1971, 1986) states that learning happens faster when the visual and verbal sides of the brain are both stimulated.


Current writing emphasizes the importance of communication between the learner and the tutor. Online students need particular support, as we have seen above; all students need feedback on their progress as they perform a particular task.

It is possible, however, to automate feedback: CAL and CAA both rely on automated feedback to tasks. In such cases students must choose from a set number of answers each of which have pre-written feedback. It is important that such feedback is clear and that common misconceptions are anticipated and explained in feedback to wrong answers.

Littlejohn and Higginson (2003) quote Vygotsky's (1962, 1978) theory about the Zone of Proximal Development, according to which children (and students) learn better when they are guided by an 'expert' who 'scaffolds' the learning by providing answers to questions, thus enabling the interlocutor to construct or build up their knowledge at the pace of their understanding.

Helping diversity

People learn in different ways, and using e-learning helps you to be aware of this and to provide different types of resources some of which may suit particular styles. You also need to be aware, however, of the need to make resources disability compliant (you can do this by adaptation, for example providing an alternative to a heavily visual resource).

It can be said that much of the above – active learning, different learning styles, feedback etc. – is just good teaching, which many lecturers adopt anyway, so is it specific to e-learning? Many would maintain that the task of e-learning is to follow the learner.

"The challenge, then, is not to establish new pedagogies for e-learning in the simple sense of coming up with new things to do with learners. Instead, this more complicated picture requires a more conservative approach: finding out what teachers do and why, and then working out how technology can best be used to support that." (Oliver, 2006)

Getting started

If you have taken on board the comments about pedagogy, and understand your personal reasons for using e-learning, then the best place to start is to find out what resources are already available in your institution. Most places have at least one staff member with expertise in e-learning, as well as a VLE in place which provides a structure for online activity.

If you are considering developing material, try and find out first of all what already exists, to see whether it could be used or adapted. There are a number of digital repositories, for example JISC collections and Jorum. Should you decide that you wish to develop an electronic resource for all or part of a course, then the following considerations may be useful (Littlejohn and Higgison, 2003):

  • What are the learning objectives?
  • What activities should the learner carry out in order to master the core concepts?
  • How will you know that the learner has understood the core concepts, and how will you provide feedback?
  • What other resources will you be using and how will the activity integrate with it?
  • How will you integrate the activity into your mainline teaching?
  • How will you evaluate?

Great precision is needed with designing learning activities, and Littlejohn and Higgison (2003) suggest using a storyboarding approach – a technique taken from television which involves planning each screen. You will probably need to sit down with your e-learning specialist to do this.

One of the most important considerations is adequate technical support, both for you and for the students. It is important both to have an induction to any online course as well as 24/7 support.

Teaching with e-learning calls for a different approach and different skills. You will probably spend more time supporting people acquire knowledge and less time transmitting it; more time up front planning the course (although this may equate with time otherwise spent planning lectures) and less time the following year once the course is planned.

Skills called for will be:

  • Attention to course design
  • Searching and evaluating resources
  • Using a VLE
  • Preparing resources
  • Managing students online
  • Providing feedback
  • Helping students themselves develop skills as e-learners – don't mistake confidence with technology with ability to use it for learning
  • Working in a team, to produce resources with others.

The reward for this hard work will be that you produce resources that can be reused, that students find enjoyable, that promote active learning and that can be used at the learner's own pace and place, and in their own time.

References and further reading

  • Downey, S. (2006), "E-learning 2.0", in eLearn Magazine downloaded from JISC e-learning focus
  • Fasli, M. and Michalakopoulos, M. (2006), "Interactive game-based learning", case study in Association of Learning Technology online newsletter, October 30, 2006. Accessed on 24th April 2007, from,0,w
  • Horizon Report (2007), New Media Consortium and Educause Learning Initiative
  • Littlejohn, A., and Higgison, C. (2003), E learning series no. 3 – a guide for teachers, LTSN Generic Centre
  • Oliver, M. (2006), editorial, ALT-J, vol. 14 no. 2
  • Paivio, A. (1971) Imagery and verbal processes, Holt, Reinhart & Winston, New York, NY
  • Paivio, A. (1986), Mental representation: a dual-coding approach, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  • Salmon, G. (2004) E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online , London: Taylor and Francis
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1962), Thought and language, edited and translated by Hanfmann, E. and Vakar, G., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (Original work published in 1934)
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978), "Interaction between learning and development", translated by Lopez-Morillas, M., in Cole, M. John-Steiner,
  • V., Scribner, S. and Souberman, E. (eds), Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

Useful sources

An excellent introduction to e-learning is provided by the Littlejohn and Higgison report quoted above, although at four years old it is a little dated and does not cover Web 2.0 technologies.

Gilly Salmon's book on E-Moderating is the best introduction to the subject, as is both its website () and hers – All Things in Moderation. The former contains an introduction to the five-stage model which Salmon writes about.

There are a number of predictions as to what will happen in e-learning: the Horizon Report is a good one and Stephen Downes' article is an insightful view of current trends in e-learning.

As would be expected, there are a number of excellent e-learning websites:

  • JISC e-learning focus is an e-zine which supports JISC's e-learning programme: .
  • The e-Learning Centre provides a major information resource about e-learning: .
  • The Higher Education Academy is the successor to the LTSN and has a section on e-learning:
  • The Association of Learning Technologists is the UK association for the profession and has an annual conference and website: Their newsletter () has several useful case studies and reports.
  • Emerald has a number of journals that cover e-Learning and learning technologies:
    Campus-Wide Information Systems
    Multicultural Education & Technology Journal
    On the Horizon