1.1 – What is E-Learning?

We recommend that you spend about two hours on this section.

One of the problems with discussing eLearning is that there are so many different understandings of the concept. Even in the literature you will find it used and defined differently by different authors. It is essential, then, that we begin with a common understanding, or at least acknowledge there are different understandings.

The following video summarizes the commentary that follows.

The eLearning Continuum

In figure 1 we present one way of thinking about e-learning. E-learning is part of a teaching and learning continuum that begins with face-to-face teaching without the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) at one end and fully online distance learning at the other end.

Figure 1 -The eLearning Continuum

 As we move along the continuum from fully face-to-face teaching, technology is used to replace the face-to-face elements. Initially, this has very little impact on how teaching is organized and how learning occurs because the technology is used primarily to enhance the face-to-face teaching. But as we move further along the continuum, the nature of teaching and how it is organized is increasingly affected by the use of ICT. Somewhere around the middle of the continuum we have what is called blended learning.

In a blended environment, fewer face-to-face sessions are held as technology is used increasingly to deliver the teaching and to facilitate the learning. And nature of the face-to-face sessions changes. Instead of coming to class to listen to a teacher, students come to discuss, and to work and collaborate in small groups. Once we reach the right end of the continuum there is no longer any face-to-face teaching and we have fully online learning in which all teaching is technology-mediated.

E-learning is that part of the continuum that begins when technology is used to replace some of the face-to-face teaching to the point on the continuum where it replaces it all.

It’s also important to understand the relationship between e-learning and distance education. These days distance education is increasingly delivered online but historically it has used other technologies and there is still a considerable amount of distance education that would not be considered e-learning. So, we can have what we call blended e-learning in which there is a combination of face-to-face and technology-mediated teaching or distance education e-learning in which all teaching and learning is done without teacher and learners ever meeting face-to-face. And there can be distance education that is primarily print-based and would not be considered e-learning.

reading iconRead Guri-Rosenblit’s (2005) discussion of the overlap and distinction between e-learning and distance education in “Distance Education” and “E-Learning”: Not the Same Thing. (See “Recommend Reading & Resources” below).

But the single e-learning continuum doesn’t capture e-learning fully and it may be more helpful to think about it in terms of two critical dimensions, each with its own continuum: distance and synchronicity. The distance continuum spans place-based learning and teaching to fully distance teaching and learning and the synchronicity continuum spans real-time interaction to completely asynchronous interaction. If we think about these as two axes on a graph we can then place the different implementations and applications of e-learning on it (see below).


Three Types of E-Learning

Zemsky & Massy (2004) have proposed what we consider to be quite useful framework for understanding e-learning because it allows us to capture a diversity of understandings of the concept in three fairly easy to understand categories.

The three categories are:

  1. E-learning as distance education
  2. E-learning as facilitated transactions software
  3. E-learning as electronically-mediated learning

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Read Zemsky & Massy (2004) for a the details of this framework. (See “Recommended Readings & Resources” below.)

Three Waves of ICT

Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia offer another framework that looks at the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in education and suggests it is helpful to think of it happening in three waves. Although they use the term ICT, we think their framework can be used to understand how e-learning has diffused through our higher education system.

Wave 1: Technology as imperative. Computers (and e-learning) were seen as essential to the preparation of our students for the information age.

Wave 2: In the second wave, the focus shifted to using computers (and e-learning) in appropriate ways. It was no longer technology for technology’s sake but “pedagogy before technology”.

Wave 3: ICTs as affordances. In the third wave, the focus, according to Berieter and Scardamalia is where it should be: on the educational ideas. It is not so much about integrating technology into educational activities as it is about understanding the potential of various technologies and and designing educational activities that take this into account. The difference between wave 2 and wave 3 is subtle and we suggest you read the Berieter and Scardamallia article to gain a better understanding.

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Read Bereiter & Scardamalia (2006) for a discussion of the three waves of ICT in education. (See “Recommended Readings & Resources” below.)

E-Learning as Learning 2.0

For another perspective, we direct you to an article written by Gerri Sinclair, Milt McClaren and Michael Griffin: E-Learning and Beyond. This article was written as a think piece in support of the Campus 2020 planning process that the Ministry of Advanced Education British Columbia organized in 2006. Sinclair et al. propose what is probably the most radical conception of e-learning. In many ways it is anti-institutional and learner-centered in the most extreme sense. Their idea is that the Web 2.0 collaboration and networking technologies allow learners to manage and direct their own learning. Their perspective is framed around the notion of moving from an architecture of presentation to an architecture of participation from web 1.0 to web 2.0 and learning 1.0 to learning 2.0. The terminology of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is a bit dated but the ideas presented in this paper are still relevant and thought-provoking. In Appendix 2 of their article they present a list of institutional e-learning readiness criteria which we will refer to later in the course.

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In addition to reading the Sinclair et al. article, we recommend you read a critique of it by the Confederation of University Faculty Associations: Putting Learning Before Technology. (See “Recommended Readings & Resources” below.)

E-Learning and Open Education

The final perspective to consider in thinking about what e-learning means, comes from the growing open education (OE) movement. According to its proponents, OE has the potential to radically change education by promoting and facilitating the sharing and reuse of educational resources and pedagogical practices and by making this all freely available to anybody who has Internet access. According to Baraniuk (2008) the OE movement is based on the idea that “knowledge should be free and open to use and reuse; that collaboration should be easier, not harder; that people should receive credit and kudos for contributing to education and research; and that concepts and ideas are linked in unusual and surprising ways and not in the simple linear forms that today’s textbooks present” (p. 229).

In many ways the notion of e-learning as open education is philosophically and pedagogically aligned with the perspective offered by Sinclair, McClaren and Griffin in the E-Learning and Beyond.

reading iconRead Challenges and Opportunities for the Open Education Movement: A Connexions Case Study to get a deeper understanding of what OE is all about. (See “Recommended Readings & Resources” below.)


You might want to also take a look at some of the videos on open educational resources (OER) in the Resources section below.

The key point we want to make here is that e-learning can involve a variety of different technologies used in different ways that extend all the way to fully online courses, but it is, by definition, about integrating learning technologies into teaching and learning, not simply using them to enhance existing approaches. It implies re-thinking and re-designing learning and reorganizing institutions.

Questions for Reflection


  1. Do these frameworks help you make sense of the concept of e-learning? Is one framework better than the other?
  2. Do you think the e-learning continuum in figure 1 is helpful in understanding e-learning or would you change it in some way? What about the Dimensions of Learning framework?
  3. If your institution or organization is already using e-learning, where does it fit in these frameworks?
  4. If your institution or organization is not using e-learning but is planning to use it, where do you think it will fit in these frameworks?
  5. What do you think of the three distinctive differences between e-learning and distance education identified by Guri-Rosenblit?
  6. Do you think it makes sense to think of open education as e-learning?

Recommended Reading & Resources

Additional Reading & Resources