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In our view there are 3 kinds of definition, E-Learning can refer to:

  1. A conceptually simple form of content-based computer-based training (and that shows in "e-instruction standards" like SCORM) plus the addition of some e-tutoring components.
  2. Distance education or similar forms of formal open learning (flexible learning, blended distance learning) making use of technology. See also open and distance learning
  3. Any form of pedagogical model that makes use of information and communication technology, i.e. what is called "digital learning" in the 2010's and what is covered by the field of educational technology.

DSchneider believes that there is no commonly accepted definition of e-learning. Most definitions include a subset of existing learning technologies and instructional design principles.

In an earlier version of this article, we quoted from Wikipedia's 2006 definition of e-learning: “As opposed to the computer-based training of the 1980s, the term e-learning is most frequently used to refer to computer-based training which incorporates technologies that support interactivity beyond that which would be provided by a single computer.” Since May 2015, the (Wikipedia:E-learning) is redirected to (Wikipedia:educational technology), i.e. reflects the idea that e-learning have become umbrella term like "digital learning".

See also:


  • If one looks at modern content oriented main-stream e-Learning one can not avoid thinking that e-learning has been invented in the early sixties, probably PLATO in 1963.
  • The inventor of the word "e-learning" probably was "Jay Cross" in 1998.
  • In the mid-nineties, so called learning management systems came into existence. WEST (later renamed to TopClass) was probably the first well known system.
  • The 2010's include a return of the movie, in particular within MOOCs but also in various very informal settings. In academia, there is a consolidation of the trend to use informal channels, in particular for student-to-student communication. More than ever, education is "communicational".


See also the article on educational technology that introduces other, more general typologies.

Schulmeister's type A and B

Schulmeister (2005) makes a distinction between:

  1. e-learning type A based on "manageable" contents that can easily made explicit via standardized learning objects and individual self-learning .
  2. e-learning type B focusing on a high percentage of complex contents based on implicit knowledge and that has to acquired through learning community of practice communities.

In terms of interactivity one also could talk about "internal" (type A) and external person-to-person interactivity (type B). However, from a learning psychology point of view, most of type A e-learning is not really interactive (selecting contents and answering quizzes is a rather low form of interactivity).


Schulmeister's e-learning types A and B (from Schulmeister 2003, text in blue by DSchneider)

More generally Schulmeister (2005:486) makes a distinction between 6 didactic descriptors:

  1. E-learning type (see above)
  2. Pedagogical scenario
  3. Learning model, see learning theory
  4. Learning environment and learning unit
  5. Learning object
  6. Interactivity of learning objects

Euler and Seufert's e-galaxy

Euler (2004) presents a conceptual framework to describe learning environments". This 4 component framework allos to describe various settings by four dimensions:

  • Social forms of learner interaction
  • Social communication forms of teaching
  • Type of Media
  • e-teaching action forms
eLearning building bricks framework (SCIL/University of St-Gallen
Source: Euler, D., Seufert, S. & Wilbers, K. (2004) [1]

See e-moderation, e-tutoring, e-instruction, e-coaching, for a description of some possible variations of eTeaching action forms.


What can we do with e-learning ?

While e-learning is fairly well accepted in areas where CBT survived well, i.e. low-level training in industry and the military, the value of e-instruction-oriented models are hotly debated. It is interesting to notice that strongest criticism comes from the instructional design community and not from constructivist practitioners and theorists who simply tend to ignore this form of educational technology.

E.g. see Merrill (in press) - who as typical "main-stream" instructional designer always loudly claimed that "Information is not Instruction" - makes it a program to ... "avoid enervative, endless, or empty e3-learning (pronounced 3 sub-three learning) and to replace it with effective, efficient, and engaging e3- learning (pronounced e to the third power learning)".

In any case, one must avoid confusion between (a) the rather restricted design ideas that are implicitly conveyed by learning management systems and by many e-learning manuals and text-books and (b) the full richness of available pedagogic strategies, instructional design models, educational technologies, etc.

Change management

Debates around e-learning (as well as any sort of educational technology often refer to pedagogical innovation issues and change management. Firstly to explain "why certain things don't happen as they should" and second in order to have models "to make things happen".

Standards, methods and tools

  • See also the category e-learning tools for tools and standards related to main-stream e-learning

Pedagogical data standards

Meta-Data and packaging standards

System's standards

  • SCORM publishes series of "standards" that are recommendation on what an LMS must be able to do. Current versions are usually based on IMS data and packaging standards.
  • IMS General Web Services to allow for interoperability of various systems. E.g. in some future you may be able to play a content hosted a learning management system within some more creative platform (like this Wiki).

See also: Learning management system

Design methodology

Major players



  • Clark Ruth Colvin and Richard E. Mayer (2003). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Pfeiffer, ISBN 0787960519
  • Euler, D., Seufert, S. & Wilbers, K. eLearning in der Berufsbildung [PDF, 126 KB]. In Arnold, R. & Lipsmeier, A. (Hrsg.): Handbuch der Berufsbildung. 2004 (in Druck). A preprint is available
  • Euler, D. Didaktische Gestaltung von E-learning-unterstützten Lernumgebungen (2004), in Euler, D. & Seufert, S. (Hrsg.) E-Learning in Hochschulen und Bildungszentren. München: Oldenbourg, 223-242.
  • Institute for Interactive Technologies , Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, USA, E-Learning Concepts and Techniques, HTML, retrieved 22:18, 9 December 2006 (MET) (This is a collaborative e-book by students and guest authors)
  • Konrad, John, (2003) Review of educational research on virtual learning environments [VLE] - implications for the improvement of teaching and learning and access to formal learning in Europe. Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 September HTML
  • Naidu, Som, E-learning. A guidebook of Principles, Procedures and Practices, Commonwealth of Learning, Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia, HTML - PDF. A nice 100 page guide including a good pedagogical design chapter. (free).
  • Driscoll, M., Carliner, S. Advanced Web-Based Training : Adapting Real World Strategies in Your Online Learning, Pfeiffer. ISBN 0787969796
  • Schulmeister, Rolf (2003), Modellversuch Lehrqualifikation für Wissenschaft und Weiterbildung, Abschlussbericht, Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Hochschuldidaktik, Universität Hamburg. [2]
  • Schulmeister, Rolf (2003b), Lernplattformen für das virtuelle Lernen. München:Oldenbourg
  • Schulmeister, R. (2005). Kriterien didaktischer Qualität im E-Learning zur Sicherung der Akzeptanz und Nachhaltigkeit. In D. Euler & S. Seufert (Hrsg.), E-Learning in Hochschulen und Bildungszentren, München: Oldenbourg, p. 487.
  • Torstein Rekkedal. ()Internet Based E-learning, Pedagogy and Support Systems pdf
  • Felix Mödritscher. (2006).e-Learning Theories in Practice: A Comparison of three Methods.J. of Universal Science and Technology of Learning, vol. 0, no. 0 (2006), 3-18. pdf
  • Terry Anderson & Fathi Elloumi. Theory and Practice of Online Learning html