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Where it all started

By the mid-1990s, the idea of computer-based learning was becoming popular around the world. In the early days, this involved courses being distributed on CD ROMs, with the enticing promise that learners could use these programmes to learn ‘anywhere, any time’.

Many of these early programmes were very much like workbooks on a computer: they consisted of a page of information to read, followed by a multiple choice quiz to see how much the learner remembered. Then another page of information and another quiz, and so on.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t very motivating for learners, and the first generation of e-learning courses ended up with rather a bad reputation. (See ‘E-learning programmes – successes and failures’ below.)

Over time, however, the e-learning market became more varied, as more and more educators started exploring the new world of opportunities that e-learning opened up.

Many universities started integrating e-learning into face-to-face courses – a strategy called blended learning – or even offering whole courses completely online. New and emerging technologies were absorbed into the teaching process, enabling the kind of interaction between learners that used to be only possible in a classroom setting, as well as a great many new and exciting ways for learners to collaboratively develop their knowledge and skills.

E-learning was now no longer just a static ‘thing’ that was given out to learners on CD ROMs, but a way for learners and teachers to communicate. Through communication, new kinds of teaching activities became possible.

Enter Web 2.0... The single most important development in technology in recent years, in relation to the development of e-learning, has been the emergence of Web 2.0. In around 2003, the Web began to transform itself from being a means to broadcast information, into being a place where users could contribute their own ideas.

Instead of just looking up information in Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, people could write an entry for Wikipedia. Web users could record their own music at home for others to hear, or could remix the music of other artists. Users could find their own city using Google Earth and 'pin' their photos of that city to the map for others to see. Anyone and everyone could write a blog telling the whole international community what was happening in their little corner of the globe.

The 'Read-only' Web had become the 'Read-Write' Web. This dramatic transition took place not only because of the advances in technology that made it possible, but also because of a desire on the part of Web users to have their voices heard and to communicate with one another – it was as much a socio-cultural transition as a technological one.

These changes in the nature of the World Wide Web have provided great opportunities for the open learning community. Now, as long as a learner can access the Internet, even just occasionally, she can access a dynamic, live community of learners to share the learning experience with.

Where are we now?

E-learning today refers to all kinds of learning that is enabled or enhanced by technology. This includes synchronous discussion (‘live’ group meetings using web-conferencing tools) and asynchronous communication (learners holding a written conversation over an extended period in a discussion forum), as well as assignments, projects and so on.

The developments described above have led to significant changes in the role of distance educators: distance learning in the 21st century works best when the educator plays a facilitator role, rather than a traditional teacher role. This kind of role lends itself well to a constructivist approach to teaching - we will talk more about this in Unit 3.


  1. Which aspects of e-learning 2.0 is your institution already implementing? 

  2. In what ways do you think e-learning 2.0 might be able to help meet the needs of adult learners? 

  3. Can you see any possible pitfalls in relation to implementing e-learning 2.0 in your context? How might you prevent these pitfalls from becoming major obstacles that derail the learning process?

  4. Read the following comment by an e-learning educator:

My sense is that, whereas the origin of reading problems in relation to print text were primarily the tendency of readers not to get an overview, but to think that to comprehend you had to start at page 1 and move word by word to the end, the problems created in web environments are different. They are about not reading anything in detail, but simply moving at the surface level through a series of apparently coherent, but actually barely coherent, links. I think that part of the art of tutoring in the environment of the web is teaching people to work against these tendencies in the interests of deep learning.

What do you think? Do you think your learners need a different kind of support when they are reading on a computer and clicking on links to get the content, rather than working page by page through a book?

Additional resources

For a more detailed account of the development of e-learning 2.0, click on the link to read an article by prominent e-learning blogger, Stephen Downes, from the University of Manitoba in Canada: http://www.downes.ca/post/31741.