What is Elearning? It Depends on Your Industry

By now, most people know what elearning means. But when I ask people what the elearning they’ve studied was like, I get a surprising variety of responses. The basic definition of elearning is a formal learning experience delivered to the learner’s computer via the Internet. However, elearning can take a variety of disparate forms within the bounds of that basic definition.

In my experience, certain adult education industries seem to gravitate to a specific form of elearning. A person who has most of their experience, either as a learner or an elearning developer, in just one of those industries typically has their own mental construct of elearning that does not encompass all of the different forms of elearning. If that person aspires to getting involved in elearning in another industry in the future, it’s valuable to broaden their exposure to elearning. This article gives an introduction to the other forms of elearning that person should explore.

Institutions of higher learning

When a person who has only been exposed to elearning from an institution of higher learning thinks of elearning, they typically think of asynchronous instructor-led elearning. In this modality of elearning, the curriculum is developed and facilitated by the instructor. Learners study the courseware at any time convenient for them, although the instructor sets due dates for assignments. Learners and the instructor communicate with each other via asynchronous discussion forums.

I have anecdotal reports of online college classes that are comprised of nothing more than:

  • reading assignments
  • asynchronous discussions
  • application assignments
  • online exams

Even though these activities are at the core of almost every asynchronous instructor-led elearning course, I hope you never had to take a course as simple as that. A more engaging online college course incorporates additional asynchronous elements such as:

  • on-demand lectures
  • curated World Wide Web-based content
  • videos
  • didactic asynchronous learner-directed courseware
  • online labs

Some even blend in synchronous elements such as:

  • virtual classroom sessions
  • office hours
  • facilitated technology workshops

The institution of higher learning brings all these elements together into a course with learning management services (LMS). Most colleges charge a tuition to attend, although they also offer certificates or other degrees upon satisfactory completion of a prescribed curriculum. However, this is also the typical format for a massive open online course (MOOC), which learners can attend free of charge and for which they can also receive a certificate of completion for a fee.

Corporate learning and development

Elearning is a very different beast in the learning and development (L&D) function for most corporations. It’s uncommon for an instructor to lead an elearning course in the corporate environment. The learning and development function is most likely to provide elearning to employees in the asynchronous learner-directed modality. The employee will typically study the elearning courseware around their active work schedule and LMS will track their progress and report it to their managers or L&D.

Elearning is usually a cost-effective method of delivering compliance training. Compliance training is typically relatively standardized for an industry, so it’s commonly available from an external elearning provider. An external provider can develop standardized compliance training courses and realize economies of scale by licensing them to many different organizations in the industry. That way, the cost for the client corporation to license compliance training for its employees is lower than it would be to develop the course internally.

The corporation’s L&D function usually must develop more specialized elearning internally. If the training is needed urgently or will have a short shelf-life, it’s common to rely on a rapid elearning development approach to produce job aides or electronic performance support modules. However, when the L&D function has more time and resources to develop training for large numbers of learners that will be used for an extended period of time, they can develop more advanced asynchronous learner-directed elearning courseware with interactivities, simulations, videos, competency testing, and other engaging features.

However, it’s not always asynchronous learner-directed elearning. Some topics, such as advanced sales training, are more suited to the synchronous virtual classroom. It’s also common for corporations to convert existing traditional instructor-led courses to the synchronous virtual classroom because it’s more expedient than converting it to the asynchronous learner-directed modality. The main challenge with the synchronous virtual classroom is scheduling classes at a time convenient for all the learners and when an instructor is available.

Non-academic learning providers

Non-academic learning providers usually fall into one of two camps. One is organizations that develop bespoke elearning to specification for corporations. They usually develop asynchronous learner-directed elearning and the courseware becomes proprietary to their client. Their client then delivers the elearning to its employees behind its firewall.

The other camp is the organization that develops elearning, retains intellectual property rights to the curriculum, and charges external customers a licensing fee to access the elearning. This is the model I referred to when an external provider delivers standardized compliance training to corporate customers. It’s also a common practice for certification training and continuing education because the curriculum is standardized. In such cases, the learning provider is also affiliated with the organization that offers the certification or is accredited as a continuing education authority for an industry. A couple of industries where you often see this model is technology training and health care.

Non-academic learning providers that license external customers to access elearning they deliver use both asynchronous learner-directed courseware and the synchronous virtual classroom. The modality they use is driven by the same factors that a corporate L&D department must consider when choosing which to use. However, they analyze the factors against their external customer base rather than against internal employees. Asynchronous learner-directed elearning can be scaled much more widely than the synchronous virtual classroom and is not bound by scheduling conflicts but it cannot provide the real-time instructor support and peer interaction that some topics require.

As you can see, elearning can be very different from the elearning you see in a single industry. If you want to continue to work with elearning but move into another industry, be aware of the significant changes you will encounter in the nature of elearning you will work with. If possible, try to get some direct exposure to the different forms of elearning to better prepare you for the industry move. Recognizing that things will be very different even though you’re still working with elearning is the first step to a successful industry change.

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