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What comes to mind when you think of “eLearning”? Do you imagine someone sitting behind a computer, clicking a Next button? Or maybe someone watching a video on a tablet or mobile device? Perhaps you imagine someone using a virtual reality (VR) headset? Regardless of what comes to mind, if the learning involves a digital device, it’s likely a form of eLearning.

The truth is, not all eLearning is created equally.

The truth is, not all eLearning is created equally. And if you’re like me, when I first started in the world of eLearning, I used to think the only definition of eLearning was “a computer-based course, delivered via a learning management system, which involved slides, a Next button, and the occasional quiz question.”

While that type of eLearning describes the eLearning I’m primarily focused on, it’s important that we, as learning professionals, recognize that the term “eLearning” actually refers to a large and ever-evolving catalog of digital learning modalities.

How Do I Define eLearning?

What is the definition of eLearning?

So, how do I define eLearning? Well, providing a single definition of eLearning isn’t easy. While you might think of eLearning as “an online, slide-based course with a Next button,” the truth is, this is only one example of eLearning. Because the technology we use to access information is always evolving, there are always new examples of how it is being used to deliver learning content.

I define eLearning as any learning experience that takes place on a digital device, such as a computer, a tablet, a smartphone, or some other device.

While this definition of eLearning might seem broad, it makes the most sense when you consider all of the various ways content can be delivered digitally. For example, if you learn something by watching a YouTube video, that’s an example of eLearning. If you complete an online course through a university, that’s an example of eLearning. If you attend a live webinar, that’s an example of eLearning. To use a cliché phrase: the possibilities are endless!

What are the Common Characteristics of eLearning?

What are the common characteristics of eLearning?

So, if there are so many different examples of eLearning, do they share any common characteristics that tie them together? Well, I’m glad you asked! The answer is, YES! While the “umbrella” of eLearning is always evolving and growing, there are a few common characteristics you can apply to the different types of eLearning.

eLearning can be synchronous or asynchronous.

The first defining characteristic of eLearning is whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. The ability for eLearning to be group-oriented or self-paced is what truly separates eLearning from other types of traditional training modalities. Most instructor-led training is synchronous, which means all the learners are engaged in the learning event at the same time. With that being said, there are also several examples of eLearning that are synchronous, for example, a live webinar or a live, online discussion.

As for asynchronous or self-paced eLearning, this is when learners complete the learning on their own, with no set time for when the learning takes place. Examples of asynchronous eLearning include videos, interactive online courses, ongoing discussion boards, etc.

eLearning can be interactive or passive.

The second defining characteristic of eLearning is whether it’s interactive or passive. Because eLearning uses technology to deliver the learning content, the use of interactivity is often employed to enhance the learning experience. For example, the learner is given control over the navigation of a course with a menu or some other navigation buttons. While this is a simple example of how eLearning can be interactive, it’s not the only example of how a learner might interact with an eLearning course. Some eLearning courses might use quiz questions to test the learners’ knowledge. Other examples of interactivity include branching scenarios, where the learner makes a decision and sees (and hopefully learns from) the result of that decision. The list of how eLearning can use interactivity is nearly endless.

The list of passive eLearning examples is just as extensive. Whether it’s a video, an online article, a digital infographic, or something else, any digital learning content that doesn’t require the learner to interact with it can be considered passive.

What are the Benefits of eLearning?

What are the benefits of eLearning?

While traditional, instructor-led learning is still very popular and widely used, eLearning offers a lot of benefits that just can’t be matched by other training modalities. Because of this, more and more organizations have been turning to eLearning in the hopes of taking advantage of the benefits.

eLearning can be created once and delivered multiple times, to multiple learners, in multiple locations.

Here are just some of the benefits that eLearning has to offer…

  • eLearning can be distributed globally. Because eLearning is delivered on a computer or some other internet-connected device, eLearning can be easily delivered to a large population of learners, regardless of their location.
  • eLearning is available when the learner needs it. Because most eLearning doesn’t require an instructor, learners can access the learning content when they need it the most.
  • eLearning can offer a consistent learning experience and message. Because an eLearning course can be created once and delivered to multiple learners, eLearning can ensure that each learner receives the same learning experience and content.
  • eLearning can track learner progress. Because eLearning is usually delivered through a hosting platform, like a Learning Management System (LMS), most eLearning can track and report the progress of each individual learner.
  • eLearning can save time and money. Because eLearning can be created once and delivered multiple times, to multiple learners, in multiple locations, it can save time and money, when compared to traditional instructor-led training.

The Bottom Line

Well, I hope that answers the question of “What is eLearning?” Whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous, interactive or passive, as the technology used to create and deliver eLearning continues to evolve, so does the definition.

Do you have a different definition of eLearning? Share by commenting below!

Tim Slade

Hi, I’m Tim Slade, and I’m a speaker, author, and founder of The eLearning Designer's Academy. Having spent the last decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content, I have been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for my creative and innovative design aesthetics. I’m also a regular speaker at international eLearning conferences, a LinkedIn Learning instructor, and author of The eLearning Designer’s Handbook.

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