Making the process of knowledge acquisition or modification less resource-consuming but more outcome-driven is among the global priorities of the educational system today, which explains the growing popularity of e-learning. To begin with, considering the need for qualified instructors’ involvement, it is clear that receiving training requires the use of financial and time resources to gather with instructors or classmates and coordinate learning activities. The need to travel in order to attend lessons and gain access to learning materials presents a significant problem, especially when it comes to people with disabilities or those willing to complete courses offered by foreign providers of educational services.
Another issue that is of utmost importance is the existence of strong links between learners’ ability to internalize knowledge or master additional skills and the use of multiple ways to teach new concepts. The discovery of the so-called multimedia effect proves demonstratively that text-only learning is not the most advantageous method of information delivery. For instance, in addition to unillustrated lectures, new information can be effectively taught with the help of video and audio materials, visual aids for learning, interactive tools, communication with peers, or multimedia presentations. Basically, the growing popularity of e-learning, broadly defined as learning conducted with the help of electronic media, can be regarded as a response to the abovementioned problems.
Definition and Features of E-Learning
In general, different researchers and institutions tend to define e-learning in dissimilar ways. It usually depends on whether or not they limit the term’s meaning to learning activities conducted with the help of the Internet. To provide a more comprehensive overview of the topic of e-learning and multiple opportunities that it offers, it is reasonable to make use of the general definition that does not restrict e-learning to online courses for students.
According to this definition, e-learning is simply understood as “instruction delivered on a digital device that is intended to support learning,” which includes both opportunities for self-study and the practice of training through collaboration between students and instructors (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 7). Thanks to the incessant development and improvement of communication technology and teaching strategies, e-learning exists in multiple forms and enables learners (both students and professionals in some organizations) to pursue their individual goals, be it mastering specific work-related skills, receiving degrees from accredited educational institutions, or exploring new opportunities for personal development.
The features of e-learning tools that are available today are also worth mentioning. Most importantly, the various forms of e-learning help to deliver content that allows reaching specific learning objectives, use the combination of text and multimedia sources to facilitate the improvement of knowledge, and make use of widely known methods of instruction (giving feedback, practice, lecture, etc.) in e-learning environments (Clark & Mayer, 2016). More than that, e-learning tools can sometimes tailor learning to the needs of individual students and encourage getting new knowledge through asynchronous and synchronous collaboration with other learners and instructors (Clark & Mayer, 2016).
Different Forms of E-Learning
Computer-Managed and Computer-Assisted Instruction
As it has been said, e-learning is not limited by educational activities involving the use of the Internet. As an example, computer-managed instruction (CMI) and computer-assisted instruction (CAI) do not necessarily involve online communication between teachers and students, but they are still considered to be examples of e-learning. As for CMI, this term refers to the use of computers to manage the process of learning, analyze its effectiveness, and suggest meaningful and reasonably practical improvements (Sedega et al., 2017).
In particular, CMI is used to research the characteristics of individual learners and how they may affect knowledge acquisition and then place this information in the context of available resources to suggest effective learning activities for individuals (Sedega et al., 2017). Using CMI systems, learners engage in reciprocal communication with the computer to define the degree to which they have met their individual learning goals.
As the term suggests, CAI is different from CMI when it comes to the role of the computer. In CMI, the computer performs multiple activities, including monitoring and recording progress in learning and generating individual recommendations and reports, whereas in CAI, the computer is responsible for both presenting educational materials and monitoring students’ progress (Sedega et al., 2017). CAI facilitates interactive learning and, at the same time, enables learners to direct their individual progress by working with audio, video, pictures, and text materials that are aligned with course objectives (Sedega et al., 2017).
The process of instruction using CAI programs may involve different experiences since such programs are capable of presenting content in the form of drill and practice (repetitive exercises focused on particular skills), instructional simulation, knowledge tests, and so on (Sedega et al., 2017). It is also worthy of note that the exact functions of CAI programs are related to their length. For instance, shorter programs taking less than an hour to complete are usually needed to improve the effectiveness of activities involving traditional instructional methods (Sedega et al., 2017). Conversely, longer programs are regarded as more independent from traditional classroom-based teaching.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Learning
Synchronous online learning is a specific form of e-learning that promotes knowledge and skill improvement by facilitating instant collaboration and communication between students if they cannot gather together to receive training delivered with the help of traditional methods. Actually, programs using this type of learning are designed to provide real-time access to online lessons taught by qualified and professional instructors. Thus, in contrast to the two forms of e-learning discussed before, synchronous online learning is an approach that combines the benefits that human interaction offers, such as the opportunity to ask questions and better flexibility in content delivery, with the advantages of modern technology, including being able to communicate with people all over the world in real time.
Synchronous learning that takes place online usually exists in the form of instructor-led training in real time. To teach online lessons and be able to react to feedback and different questions from students attending the class, instructors can use video conferencing software and chat rooms (Clark & Mayer, 2016). Teaching sessions organized using the synchronous approach can be easily transformed into learning materials to be accessed in an asynchronous manner. For instance, individual learners can use recorded real-time training sessions while applying a self-paced approach to education.
Asynchronous online learning, as is clear from the term, is the approach to online delivery of educational content that offers more flexibility to students due to being much less time-bounded. E-learning courses that represent this form of e-learning usually allow students to control the amount of information that they work with and make their own decisions concerning the amount of time to be spent on particular activities (Clark & Mayer, 2016). For instance, asynchronous courses are specifically convenient for students who try to combine work and study and are too busy to attend scheduled online events. With that in mind, asynchronous e-learning supports individual development and offers highly convenient ways of accessing course materials and completing assignments.
Fixed and Responsive E-Learning
Aside from the factor of synchronicity, different types of e-learning can be classified based on the degree to which source materials can be adapted to give consideration to the learning needs and specific characteristics of individual learners. Similar to offline courses delivered in traditional classrooms, some e-learning courses and applications cannot provide flexibility and alter approaches to instruction depending on students’ individual difficulties and issues, preferred learning styles, barriers to learning, and so on (Truong, 2016).
If they take such an inflexible course, all students are expected to go through one and the same educational process to change the state of things regarding their knowledge and be assessed with reference to the same criteria. It is essential that non-adaptive systems are less expensive and easier to plan and implement. At the same time, however, it is fair to say that such forms of e-learning do not use the opportunities of modern technology to the full extent.
Next, e-learning systems can be adaptive or responsive, which means that different course materials and approaches to instruction are subject to change depending on students’ preferences and individual characteristics. The very idea of responsive e-learning systems is considered to be the breakthrough to the future since such systems can maximize the degree to which the process of instruction is centered on the student.
To some extent, the existence of adaptive e-learning systems is to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction between instructors and students in online learning environments, due to which it becomes more challenging for teachers to understand online students’ individual struggles and react to this information. Interestingly, continuing on the topic of responsiveness, gamified e-learning is considered to be a promising approach to workforce training since it allows responding to people’s individual needs (Clark & Mayer, 2016). Being seen as something revolutionary and capable of significantly improving students’ learning outcomes, the idea of responsive e-learning systems is relatively new.
Depending on a particular e-learning tool, it is possible to consider specific characteristics of students, for instance, physical and intellectual abilities, skills, or performance to introduce meaningful changes to learning activities, such as making assignments more complicated or vice versa. Today, adaptive or responsive e-learning systems are often developed based on models that emphasize the role of students’ prior knowledge and even background in the personalization of education, which allows tailoring learning to students’ specific strengths and knowledge gaps (Truong, 2016). One of the relatively recent innovative ideas peculiar to adaptive e-learning is the introduction of models that give the pride of place to learning style preferences instead of other characteristics of learners (Truong, 2016).
To put the idea of personalization with reference to learning styles into practice, modern software developers focus on the best ways to detect such preferences with the help of e-learning, use information about preferred learning styles to personalize learning content, and create personalized games and game-based content (Truong, 2016). In particular, an understanding of the conversational learning style is widely used in personalized e-learning applications involving educational games (Clark & Mayer, 2016).
One-Way and Interactive E-Learning
To continue on the forms and types of e-learning, it is necessary to consider the presence of opportunities for two-way communication with the teacher or learning materials accessed with the help of digital devices. Linear or non-interactive e-learning takes place when learners are supposed to download lecture materials and self-assessment guides from specific sources and engage in self-learning without help from subject matter experts who have created the content. The disadvantages of this form of e-learning become evident if it is not combined with traditional classroom activities, such as discussions, knowledge assessments, and so on.
Regarding interactive e-learning, it is rather popular among both instructors and students due to multiple opportunities for reciprocal communication and the resulting positive effects on students’ understanding of course materials. E-learning lessons and courses can be divided into three groups based on the degree of interactivity (Clark & Mayer, 2016). Using materials with very low interactivity (receptive e-learning), such as self-assessment questions, pre-recorded audio or video lectures, images, and similar materials, learners are not supposed to interact with the content and change it in any way (Clark & Mayer, 2016).
Interactivity may seem to be a bit more pronounced in e-learning courses with animated learning materials and simple drag and drop exercises, but it is still low compared to what modern technology can actually offer.
Next, e-learning materials that are moderate in terms of interactivity allow learners to make choices that shape their e-learning experiences. In particular, e-learning tools can be developed based on directive architectures that make use of the “explanation-example-question-feedback” formula and have the medium level of interactivity (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 21). E-learning courses that offer some opportunities for interaction can help learners to customize their experiences and gain personalized insights with the help of diverse approaches to instruction, including interactive videos, PowerPoint slides, and so on.
Finally, guided discovery architectures that emphasize the process of knowledge construction allow creating fully interactive e-learning lessons and courses that provide learners with new information, help them to apply critical thinking and problem solving, and enable students to learn from mistakes instead of simply pointing to them (Clark & Mayer, 2016). The examples of tools that offer such experiences may include interactive educational games, complex simulation exercises, avatars serving as virtual instructors, or interactive branching scenarios that improve learners’ understanding of decisions and consequences. The purpose of incorporating such activities into e-learning courses is to propel students’ engagement to the next level.
To sum it up, e-learning, which is the use of modern technology to facilitate knowledge improvement, deserves to be called a promising alternative to traditional methods of instruction. It is thanks to its advantages related to costs, better accessibility of education, benefits for special needs or working students, and new opportunities to customize instruction. Nowadays, e-learning exists in a variety of forms, including programs and applications that analyze students’ learning performance and suggest individualized instructional strategies or are responsible for both instruction and assessment.
E-learning courses greatly vary when it comes to synchronicity, which allows taking the needs of extremely busy learners into account. Additionally, it is critical that some e-learning solutions provide opportunities for the customization of instruction depending on learners’ unique needs and strengths. Modern e-learning courses are also diverse in terms of the degree of interactivity, which makes e-learning methods appropriate for training even very specific skills. This diversity of options that e-learning offers to modern students further contributes to its popularization and role in education systems.
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Sedega, B. C., Mishiwo, M., Fletcher, J. A., Kofi, G. A., & Awudetsey, J. (2017). Effect of computer assisted instruction (CAI) on senior high school students’ achievement at pie chart and histogram in core mathematics. British Journal of Education, 5(9), 45-68.
Truong, H. M. (2016). Integrating learning styles and adaptive e-learning system: Current developments, problems and opportunities. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 1185-1193.