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Should We Drop the “e” in “eLearning”?

Adding the e to learning, emphasizes the technological delivery of content, communication, and activities, which was a critical distinction in the early days of online learning, but perhaps less so today. It could all be considered learning – offline, online, and in between – especially as more campus-based programs and courses integrate online components in addition to face-to-face class meetings.

Several weeks ago one of our #IOLchat sessions touched on this subject in response to the question "How can students leverage their online learning skills in their current or future employment situations?" One participant noted that while successful online students may be aware of their skills, they may not immediately relate these skills to their online learning experience. I chimed in with the thought that it may be time to drop the "e," and more openly engage in the discussion about how learning and work are evolving through the use of technology.

It's not just in higher education that we see this integration happening, as K-12 and corporate training environments also increasingly use web-based and otherwise digital resources to work towards improved learning solutions for students and streamlined administrative processes for instructors and organizations. And the skills expected of students and new graduates, from both online and traditional programs, include a host of technical competencies, such as this list of "10 Tech Skills Every Student Should Have" from Tech & Learning.


Is eLearning Passé?


The term eLearning has become commonplace to educators and learning professionals, particularly those working directly with online delivery and digital resources. And there seems to be a kind of rollout of adding an "e" to products and services that have been around but are newly web-based and digital, such as eCommerce, eMail, eBooks, and ePortfolios. But at some point, like the one we may be headed toward in education, the transition has been made and there are few instances of the non-digital origins remaining. However, elearning is still highly used (Google the term or search Twitter for #elearning). There are arguments for and against dropping the "e," and through the examples provided below you'll see that there is more to the issue than just the letter.

  • Focus and attention: Many argue that elearning indicates a focus, and perhaps a priority, on the delivery of content, instead of on the process of learning. Paraphrasing a recent conversation I observed on Twitter:  what does it matter whether it's online or offline, if we don’t ask questions about the learning first? A focus on technology can divert attention from the development of appropriate learning objectives and assessments.  
  • Definitions and labels: Development of a definition of elearning is ongoing and often left to interpretation. Learning and performance expert Donald Taylor wrote that "e-learning is a catch-all term encompassing a great deal, and … meaning many things to different people." And not all educators have bought-in to the concept of elearning, so the label itself may deter those who have assumptions about what might be involved when, for example, a new "elearning initiative" is implemented at their school.
  • Alternative approaches: Steve Wheeler, associate professor of learning technology at Plymouth University, suggests that the "e" could be used to do more than indicate a distinction between "electronic" and face-to-face classrooms. The term elearning has taken root and evolved to mean more than just online delivery. What if the "e" stood for "enhanced," "extended," or even "exotic?" 
  • Industry jargon: Learning and development manager Mike Collins also makes the point that learning professionals use a lot of jargon, such as elearning, within their own teams and peers to communicate with colleagues about projects they are designing. They don't often use the same terms and language when communicating with learners and instructors. The term elearning also helps to describe the work of online instructional design and development in this way, and allows those who are focused specifically on non-traditional delivery to stay connected.

The Discussion Continues


In 2007 Donald Taylor was one of many voices calling for the end of the "e" when he wrote, "There is no need to differentiate now between methods of content delivery. The battle is over, and e-learning has won. It's a regular part of the learning mix." That was almost five years ago. In the meantime, many developments in the tech world have taken place, and new terms describing learning and learning environments have emerged (i.e. mlearning).

It appears that elearning will be around for years to come, both the term itself and the electronic delivery of learning materials. One of our chat participants observed that "E-anything is passé, but still new to many niches." It hasn't yet reached all aspects of education – content, learners, and learning institutions – and so the terminology continues to serve a purpose in these contexts. What do you think of dropping the "e"? Is elearning a "regular part of the learning mix" where you are learning and working?

Image credit: Orin Zebest, Flickr, CC-BY

February 8th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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