Aug 232011

eLearning: What Can We Learn from Higher Education?

eLearning: By Mike Dickinson,  August 22, 2011, Via Learning Solutions Magazine

eLearning: “Start with a desired and deliberate pedagogy or strategy, and then figure out which technological and interpersonal tools will help that strategy succeed. Apply the key factors from higher education that I have outlined here; these are already known to contribute to student success.”

eLearning: (Yes, this is a trick question.)

My focus the past 20 years has been internal corporate instructional design with an emphasis on eLearning. Recently I had occasion to come up for air and I saw some fascinating developments in higher education with respect to eLearning. After scouring some of the literature, I believe our colleagues in higher education have identified some instructional strategies and critical success factors that may be helpful for those in the corporate world.


For the sake of this article, I’d like to establish the way I’ll be using some key terms.

I’ll use “online learning” to mean a course that is delivered and mediated at least 80% by computer.

I’ll use “eLearning” to describe a broader set of elements delivered or facilitated by computer, some of which may even be human-mediated such as online discussions. Other elements that I’ll include under the eLearning label could include delivery and tracking of assignments, course schedules, and online stand-alone quizzes and tests. I’ll treat eLearning and distance learning as synonyms.

Course” has two meanings:

  • If the context is a corporate setting, then a “course” generally means a one-time, often contiguous activity that may last from 15 minutes to several days.
  • If the context is higher education, then “course” generally means a semester-long series of classes. A course may have been converted from a “traditional” course (classroom lecture) to an “eLearning” (or “distance learning”) course with components like those described above.

Academia uses the word pedagogy much more commonly than corporate circles do. It is the study of teaching and of being a teacher, especially the strategies involved. (Wikipedia, 2011) A major thrust of this article is the relationship between technologies and pedagogies, or instructional strategies.

What is the corporate eLearning baseline?

Before I discuss some higher education trends, I’d like to look at the current landscape of corporate eLearning, especially concerning stand-alone online courses. Here are some of the challenges that folks in the corporate world wrestle with:

  • The learner’s interaction is almost exclusively with a computer and not with fellow learners or the instructor.
  • It can be difficult to capture and hold the learner’s attention.
  • The training may be perceived as simplistic even when branching or simulations are used.

In my opinion, two defining elements of corporate online learning are the nature of the objectives (pragmatic; how do I perform a task?) and the nature of the value proposition, namely cost saving. Rarely is our objective to raise the learner’s cognitive skills to the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, and savings in travel cost and time are often the key factor in choosing online delivery. This is not meant as an indictment; it’s merely the nature of corporate job training.

What’s happening in higher education?

So what is it about higher education that caught my attention? First and foremost are the striking things that you can do in a semester-long course vis-à-vis a short, one-time course. Whereas corporate training falls mostly in the category of online learning (a one-time, short course), higher education seems to embrace the full concept of eLearning across an entire semester with a variety of activities to promote richer engagement and deeper understanding.

This longer-term opportunity offers a fascinating chance to focus on effective pedagogies and then apply technology to match the desired teaching strategy. When the converse is done, that is, if we start by folding in technologies without understanding their purpose, learning effectiveness generally suffers.

Course structures vary from university to university and course to course, but there seem to be two nearly universal components: online discussion among students, and much more individual and group interaction between students and the professor. In a very real sense, eLearning enables the course to extend beyond the times and walls of scheduled classroom sessions, immersing the student in the learning. This does not come without a price. Another universal trait is that eLearning tends to be harder and more time consuming than traditional classroom teaching for instructor and students alike. As a result, some students drop out.

What is the trend?

Given the increased opportunity, along with greater difficulty, just what is the eLearning trend in higher education these days? Here are some recent statistics.



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