By Glenda: First published in Online Currents – Vol.16 Issue 7, September 2001
E-learning (electronic learning) opportunities are developing quickly. From the click-through tutorials of computer-based training, online learning has evolved into a complex mix of learning experiences using resources on the Web, communication via e-mail and online chat, and collaborative work.
Some software packages have been developed to support the whole e-learning process, while others focus on specific aspects of e-learning, such as the provision of online examinations or the display of slides online. Organisations wishing to implement e-learning can develop courses alone or in conjunction with instructional design experts from specialist e-learning companies. Few sections of the education community have been untouched by these developments, with e-learning solutions being implemented in schools, TAFE colleges, universities, community education institutions, and the business world.
Beer1 classifies e-learning Web sites in five categories. These are:
- Mega-sites, which group all types of e-learning resources and offer one-stop shopping
- Catalogue sites, which list courses that are available
- Delivery sites, which offer a range of learning environments
- Resource centres, which contain useful documents for instructors, and
- Tool sites, which contain software packages and templates.
Learning management systems used by large corporations can cost many thousands of dollars to implement and include support for management of learning pathways as well as content delivery and assessment. An Internet search for ‘e-learning companies’ retrieves many relevant sites.
One example of a corporate Learning Management System (LMS) is e-cademy2. It supports browser-based authoring and reporting through any Internet connection. The April 2000 issue of Online Currents notes the use of e-cademy by Butterworths and for McGrath Estate Agents courses. Alternatives include SocratEase3 which emphasises sales messages and e-commerce transactions, and ePath Learning4.
An e-learning software package suitable for higher education courses is Webteach5, which was developed at the University of NSW. Important features of e-learning that it supports include:
- Discussion, questioning and brainstorming, including the ability to close off discussions if needed
- Meta-comments (comments on the learning process, e.g. preference for time or mode of delivery)
- Quizzing (the ability to pose a question, and reserve the answer until the learner has responded).
In addition to Webteach, course developers need software for the presentation of content and activities and receipt of assignments.
Another program used in higher education is WebMCQ, which was developed in conjunction with the University of Sydney to provide multiple choice assessment on the Web6. WebMCQ has also been used for online courses provided to investors by the Australian Stock Exchange. Feedback about the courses has been positive, particularly with regard to their interactivity and flexibility (one shift-worker appreciated being able to study at 2am) 7. There is a demonstration quiz on the site. A screen shot of the response to an incorrect answer is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Demonstration Quiz Screen Shot
A readily accessible, free tool for e-learning communication is YahooGroups8. It supports many aspects of e-learning including:
- Web site set up by students
- Discussion groups (asynchronous communication)
- Chat (synchronous communication), and
- Portfolios for submission of assignments.
Some of the best practice in school-level e-learning is in those sites that have many users (and can therefore spread development costs) and which have been established for a specific purpose. Quality e-learning courses also extend beyond the Web where necessary. One example is the Jason Project9, which is a world-wide science project involving research and exploration on the Web, as well as class-based field projects and area-based experiences. A class at East Blaxland Public School, for example, participated in one excursion to Penrith Lakes looking for aquatic life, and another to the University of NSW with other school groups to share data and do experiments. This e-learning project successfully combines many different levels of research and communication.
An Australian offering is ‘Murder under the microscope”10, in which primary school children find ‘clues’, on the Web, and do external research (including e-mailing experts) to find out who or what was responsible for an environmental crime. Information is offered in small doses, so students gradually work towards a solution. Findings are reported on the Web. For example, a NewsFlash on 6 June 2001 noted that ‘The couch [grass] in Homebush has been affected by the construction of the Olympic Stadium’, a report by the Donut Detectives from Woonona East Public School. A screen shot with information about one of the ‘crime sites’ is shown in Figure 2. Classroom activities develop skills in research, analysis, group work and communication. The project is run by OTEN and the Department of Land and Water Conservation.
Figure 2: Environmental Crime Site
University and TAFE Sector
Universities use e-learning for complete courses, for parts of courses that are also offered partly on-campus, and for free, short courses to entice students to full, on-campus courses.
Cardean University11 (based in the United States) exemplifies collaboration between institutions, with courses created by universities such as Stanford and the University of Chicago. Western Governors University12 (also based in the United States) offers degrees and certificates based on demonstrated competencies, not on courses taken. This model is relevant to continuing and adult education, where students have a range of skills and knowledge when they come to the course.
The University of Washington has announced plans to offer free short courses online. They will take about two hours each, and cover topics from jazz history to business writing. The university hopes that people who try the short courses will then pay for the full versions13.
The TAFE Virtual Campus14 site offers a catalogue of over 400 TAFE online units or modules. It also offers information about offline support such as TAFE libraries. Teachers are well supported by having course resources online for easy access.
E-learning has had a huge impact in the corporate sector, where cost savings and training benefits are expected from its introduction.
The Motorola University15 offers a range of courses, and will custom design them for delivery to other organisations. This may be an efficient way to avoid reinventing the wheel. Many courses in fields such as information technology and communication have already been developed.
DigitalThink applies instructional design principles in the creation of courses for companies, emphasising the use of interactivity to enhance student involvement. It guides learners through courses by providing an orientation program and setup advice, using a logical site structure and providing guidance when needed. The orientation lets you try out interactive techniques such as ‘mouseovers’ and online quizzes. You can enrol for a sampler course at http://www.digitalthink.com/catalog/ .
The Barnes and Noble University16 offers free courses in a wide range of topics, in the hope that you will buy the recommended textbooks, which they sell. The site is well-presented and easy to browse.
I tried the ‘Introduction to XML’ course. The material was good, and the course instructor (who was involved in online discussions) was an XML expert. Practical exercises were limited, as most ‘assignments’ just involved further reading on the Web. Self-assessment tasks were almost nonexistent.
Another site for the general public is http://ehow.com , at which people can learn how to give their ferret a bath, check the brake fluid in their car, and perform many other household or hobby activities. These ‘courses’ involve brief content but not much interaction.
Implementation of E-learning
The advantages of e-learning include:
- The ability to expand courses beyond capital cities and traditional educational locations
- A broadened student base meaning more varied interaction in discussions (online) and more cost-effective courses
- Where the subject is taught at a computer, online delivery means students get hands-on practice of relevant computer skills. It also means the courses are offered in a situation similar to the work environment
- Alternative opportunities for communication
- More efficient, centralised, maintenance of up-to-date course material
- The chance to use pre-existing online courses to supplement the desired course. For example, students could learn HTML for free before taking a course in Web site graphic design. Students can also tap into online discussion groups relevant to their topic, in addition to groups set up specifically for the course.
The disadvantages of e-learning include:
- The time and money needed for conversion of current face-to-face courses
- Unfamiliarity of instructors with online delivery
- The need for students to be familiar with Internet searching and e-mail before starting the course
- The cognitive load of learning the e-learning software as well as the course
- Lack of immediate personal feedback
- Difficulties in implementing courses not well-suited to online format, e.g. cookery
- Difficulties in implementing discussion and chat for very short courses or those with low student numbers
- Software and hardware problems leading to loss of learning opportunities
- Overenthusiasm for the economic and other benefits of e-learning leading to the neglect or abandonment of face-to-face learning opportunities.
Ideally, e-learning will be combined with face-to-face classes to complement the Web-based work. This allows course designers to use online delivery for the aspects of the course to which it is best suited (e.g. provision of continually updated content, and linking learners through discussion groups), and to use face-to-face delivery for the things it is best suited to (e.g. informal evaluation of prior knowledge and new knowledge, provision of immediate personal feedback and motivation of students).
Many e-learning tools have potential for use in less formal situations. For example, in organisations undergoing significant change, the use of online communication for the dissemination of information, and for the provision of forums for the discussion of pressing issues would be very useful. The concept of online information provision and communication need not be limited to formal structured courses.
Dramatic developments in e-learning over the last few years show the potential for the Web as a medium for online education, incorporating communication and collaboration in ways that are not possible with traditional computer-based teaching. There is already a body of software and courses available, meaning that information providers can slot their own content into existing software, or adopt courses that have been created by instructional design specialists. However, it must be recognised that it costs a lot of money to convert courses for online delivery. In addition, students must commit time and effort to learning about the software and e-learning system that is used. For ongoing courses this can be time well spent, but for a one-day course no student wants to spend hours learning how to move through the program online.
These developments mean that a lot more of the learning we do will be Web-based. There is also a wealth of free education of reasonable quality on the Web, so that those with time on their hands need never be bored.
There are several e-mail newsletters and Web sites to help you keep up-to-date with developments in e-learning. The EdNA (Education Network Australia) Web site (http://www.edna.edu.au ) links to lots of useful information about online learning. Subscribe to the EdNA What’s New Email Alert at http://www.edna.edu.au/tools/email.html .
The EDUPAGE newsletter gives information about developments in the United States. In the last month, for example, announcements have included the provision of free online short courses by the University of Washington (to entice students to pay for their longer courses) and the use of online re-training for mine workers who were recently laid off. For information on EDUPAGE and other EDUCAUSE publications seehttp://www.educause.edu/pub/pubs.html (online publications are near the bottom of the page).
My thanks to Tony Whittingham for introducing me to the concepts of e-learning in the UTS Certificate IV in E-learning.
Glenda Browne is a freelance indexer.
1Beer, Valerie (2000). The web learning fieldbook: using the world wide web to build workplace learning environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
13Edupage, June 11, 2001. Subscribe at To subscribe go tohttp://www.educause.edu/pub/edupage/edupage.html