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It’s Time to Drop E-Learning


For some, e-learning is only now coming into its own. For others, the word smacks of an obsession with technology. Donald H Taylor argues that it’s time to drop the ‘e’ and start concentrating on the ‘learning’.

It’s time to drop e-learning. Let’s be specific. It’s time to drop the ‘e’ in e-learning.

It’s time to recognise that the ‘e’ carries the stigma of past hyperbole, puts some potential learners and managers off and smacks of a love of technology that has everything to do with content delivery, rather than individual learning.

If the ‘e’ was ever useful, it has outlived that use now. That’s why ELIG – formerly the E-Learning Industry Group – is now ELIG, the European Learning Industry Group (although if you examine their site you’ll find the word e-learning scattered liberally all over it).

I’ve used the term myself happily in the past – as you might expect of the chairman of the Learning Technologies Conference – but the ELIG change has given me to reflect. And the result of that reflection: they’re right. There’s 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. As Joe Hegarty, Intel Innovation Centres director of business operations and co-chair of ELIG, puts it on the eLearning Weekly blog:
The term ‘e-learning’ has been overused. Technology is now clearly embedded in all modern learning solutions.

Define your terms
E-learning is a catch all term encompassing a great deal, and also – inevitably – meaning many things to different people. Although we’ve lived with it for about a decade, there is no single definition shared by experts such as Clive Shepherd and communities such as Learning Light. The Wikipedia entry recognises this explicitly:
Electronic learning or e-learning is a general term used to refer to computer-enhanced learning. It is used interchangeably in so many contexts that it is critical to be clear what one means when one speaks of 'eLearning'.
(Apparently the author believes that even e-learning’s spelling can be interchangeable.)

Catch all terms have their place – they often crystallize disparate strands of thinking around a subject. The term ‘informal learning’, for example, has been useful to coalesce a whole strand of learning by stressing the commonality between seemingly very dissimilar learning events. But while e-learning might have begun life like this – clustering different delivery media and design issues around a single term – it rapidly took on a life of its own, when it started to look like a free meal ticket. And that was when the rot set in.

The end of the last millennium was a great time for hype, and the term ‘e-learning’ was propelled to mass popularity, fuelled by deadly cocktail of self interest from suppliers, buyers’ love of the new, and executive interest in the cost-cutting power of this new technology. The energy and excitement became a self-feeding whirlwind, fed by analyst reports predicting massive increases, predictions based on buyer predictions, which were in turn based on what they were reading in the magazines and websites produced by the marketers and neophiles. And it was all caught up in the dot com boom.

The prince at the party
Remember partying like it was 1999? The phrase took on a whole new meaning on 10 March 2000, when Nasdaq peaked at 5048 and then tipped over onto a long, dark decline.

Sure as nemesis follows hubris, e-learning entered a reputational dark age. Learning Management Systems fell grotesquely out of favour with the markets, with shares values losing as much as 97% of their value by late 2002. Prices are still way off a full recovery.

The market, though, got it wrong. Missing in all this vilification of e-learning was an understanding of what it means. It represents a cluster of activities, tools and ways of thinking that are essential parts of learning and development today. The markets, though, made it a millstone to be ditched as soon as possible. LMS providers now stress the terms ‘Performance Management’ and ‘Human Capital’ instead.

Yet the term persisted precisely because those in the know understood the value of electronic delivery of training materials. But it was also a problem – although it uses the term learning, learning is what we humans do. The ‘e’ in e-learning is all about delivery. Gutenberg didn’t rave about the b-learning his printed books provided; I’ve never heard a lecturer enthuse on v-learning for voices, so why the ‘e’? Even as the concept of e-learning was being slowly re-habilitated in the Learning and Development profession, the term itself was still flawed.

In a way the boom times had one valuable effect – they pushed learning onto the organisational agenda as never before. Suddenly learning was being discussed at a senior level. The good news: non-learning specialists were interested in what we did. The bad news: most saw e-learning as a cost-cutting measure, because that’s how it was consistently presented to them. As Kevin Kruse said on the otherwise excellent e-learning guru site about four years ago:
technology-based training can substantially reduce costs associated with student travel, lodging, and instructor fees
Executives still see e-learning as a handy way to trim costs.

Hangover cure
The hangover from the party lasted. There is no neutral outcome from the sort of hyperbole that surrounded the early days of e-learning. From the start there was push back, which only increased after the crash. This came partly from those resistant to technology and change – the neophobes. And that’s one big reason for dropping the ‘e’. In learning, the emotions are both catalyst and inhibitor. If you don’t like electronics, then you’ll be inhibited by that ‘e’. Are these people Luddites? Maybe some are. But Luddites are learners, too.

And the other bitter aftertaste of the hype is a lasting cynicism among management. Too many see e-learning as yesterday’s fad.

Humble beginnings
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Learning Technologies Manager Claire Line has accumulated considerable expertise in this area both during and after the boom. In her implementation at top international law firm Lovells, she uses e-learning but resolutely drops the ‘e’. “We call them online presentations” she says, of her in-house authored e-learning content. And very successful they are, too, in delivering learning content to the firm’s 26 international offices. She has been resolutely extending the reach of electronic delivery into just-in-time performance support at the desktop and videoed presentations. Avoiding the big-bang hype of massive e-learning implementations typical of the early 2000s, she takes a different approach. “Start humble” she counsels “build great content, and an enthusiastic following.” Clearly, you don’t need an ‘e’ to succeed.
And what about that bastard child of e-learning, e-learning 2.0? Tony Karrer described it enthusiastically in February 2006, while David Jennings has a marvellously scathing post on it from December. For a broad, well-written exposition, see Stephen Downes’ piece from elearn Magazine.

And yes, I have used this term myself in the past, too, but I now believe we need to drop it. Why? Because we cannot shake the burden of the past. Everything that is true of e-learning is also true of e-learning 2.0.

Starting over
The new term may be about learning and collaboration and not about delivery and hype. It may not be a way of selling software, but an inspirational vision of mash-ups. Still, the cynical managers and the Luddites will never get past the term and its history – and that’s reason enough to me to drop it. Instead, let’s just talk about finding and using the right tools for the job.

One of the very first to use the term e-learning, Jay Cross, puts it very clearly:
I wouldn’t get hung up on vocabulary: all learning is part formal and part informal; eLearning has lost all meaning.

Rather, I suggest a focus on how to help people do their jobs better. That leads directly to creating platforms, not programs.
Where’s he quoted? The elearning weekly blog. We may have some way to go.

About the author: Donald H Taylor is Alliances Director at InfoBasis, and Chairman of the Learning Technologies and IITT National Trainers conferences. In January he was presented with the Colin Corder Award for outstanding services to IT training. He blogs at


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