In this article
E-learning is a fantastic way to learn new skills, gain qualifications, refresh your knowledge and access the learning when and where it suits you. It can be accessed via most electronic devices including your computer, laptop, tablet, iPod or smartphone, making it a versatile and easy way to learn wherever you are.
E-learning is truly 21st century, as the term “e-learning” has only been in existence since 1999 when it was first coined at a computer-based training systems seminar in Los Angeles.
That’s not to say that computer aided and electronic learning didn’t exist before this; the Open University in the UK was a very early adopter of technology in learning delivery, but it was the introduction of the home computer and the internet in the late 20th century that accelerated the development and uptake of e-learning. Other interchangeable terms for e-learning include “online”, “virtual” and “digital” learning; but essentially it is learning that is enabled electronically.
What is E-learning?
E-learning refers to learning on any electronic device whether that is, for example, taking a digital training course, watching an educational video or listening to a podcast, reading an interesting article or e-book or taking a quiz – all of this is e-learning.
E-learning doesn’t set out to replace traditional training and education, but rather to enhance it, making learning more accessible, directed and convenient. Many employing organisations and education and training providers offer blended learning where formal and/or informal learning may be combined (‘blended’) with other types of learning.
For example, the majority of learning content might be delivered through face-to-face training, lectures or coaching, but supporting text materials, tests or the dialogue with other learners and collaborative activities are all conducted online. Or an organisation may elect to provide its mandatory compliance training via e-learning for ease of delivery and to ensure standardisation.
University College London Hospital (UCLH) has reported that it has improved its completion rates in mandatory compliance training from 70% to 96% by using e-learning.
Topics and subject areas available to learn through e-learning are diverse and range from Business to Education, Built Environments to Health and Safety, Nursing to Hospitality, Languages to Personal Development and many, many more. Study levels range from undergraduate, postgraduate and professional qualifications through to short courses for continuing professional development (CPD) as well as single sessions, introductions to and refreshers.
Some of the most popular course subjects in the UK in 2021 include:
- Health and Safety qualifications.
- Team Leading and Management.
- Finance qualifications.
- Human Resource qualifications.
- Mental Health and Wellbeing.
- Social Media Marketing.
- Nutrition and Health.
- Remote Working.
- Cloud Computing.
Some common types of e-learning methods include:
- Digital courses – Often presented as slides with information and media including video, audio and pictures, and interspersed with quizzes, simulations and case studies. The experience is memorable and easy to go through.
- Quizzes – Like traditional quizzes and tests, digital quizzes are fun and interactive. They help test how much you have learned from a learning session, can act as a recap of the content or they can be used as a knowledge gap assessment prior to study.
- Webinars – These are online “lectures” and presentations; the speaker’s desktop serves as a screen where they can show slides and videos. These can also be interactive where the participants can ask questions and receive answers in real time.
- Virtual tutoring and coaching – Sessions are delivered and coaching takes place via video communication platforms such as Skype or Zoom.
- Video courses – This format can be fun, visually compelling and can be used for any topic. A video course can be an interactive course with pop-up questions and game elements, or a simple informative video.
- Apps and software – These allow self-taught learning through apps that can be downloaded to a smartphone.
- Podcasts – These are very convenient as you can listen to them anywhere, for example while jogging, commuting or driving a car instead of listening to the radio.
- E-books, blogs and articles – These online materials make up a strong knowledge base that people can access at any time that is convenient to them.
- Simulations and gamification – These can either simulate a possible scenario in the workplace virtually such as dealing with customers, or may be a virtual experience such as a flight simulator or a game challenge that is tailored to a subject or topic and encourages participation by providing fast and frequent feedback on progress throughout the game.
The American business magazine Forbes has stated that the worldwide e-learning market is projected to be worth $325 billion (approximately £250 billion) by 2025, meaning that the market will have nearly doubled in a decade.
The UK e-learning industry has reported that in 2017, 77% of companies they surveyed incorporated some form of virtual training; when they surveyed again in 2020 that number had jumped to 98%. This expansion was mainly caused by necessity as the COVID pandemic led to a larger remote workforce and a dramatic revolution in the way organisations think about work and corporate learning.
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research conducted in the summer of 2020 found 54% of more than 1,000 employers surveyed had been using digital and online learning during lockdown and 80% plan to increase this provision over the next 12 months.
During the COVID pandemic, up to 1.2 billion children in 186 countries were affected by school closures and many were moved to online learning. As there were major investments into the online teaching market, it is anticipated that e-learning will continue in education even once the pandemic is over.
A survey by Statista of 1,800 individuals in the UK found that those aged 16 to 24 were the most likely to use some form of online learning materials, those in the 25 to 34 age bracket were the most likely to have taken an online course, and that men were slightly more likely than women to use e-learning.
Advantages of e-learning to organisations
There are many advantages to e-learning, whether you choose to use it on its own or to enhance existing more traditional training delivery methods.
Here are some examples:
- Saves time and money – With online learning, learners can access content anywhere and anytime. 40% to 60% less employee work time is taken for e-learning compared to attending classes. It is cost-effective as organisations save a substantial amount on the travel and accommodation costs of both learners and trainers, as well as saving on the venue and materials costs. Also, no travel and no paper waste on printing course materials helps reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint and is better for the environment.
- Leads to better retention of learning – The majority of today’s learners prefer bite-sized, interactive learning content. They would rather watch a video, listen to a podcast or view slices of information on slides with breaks for summary quizzes than read through pages of a manual or book. The more engaging the content is, the better the learners remember information. If they enjoy learning, they are able to recall and apply the concepts at work.
- Consistency of content and learner experience – In face-to-face sessions where trainers usually deliver set content, the session can and does adapt to accommodate the learning group present; this might mean variations in approach, style and possibly even content. E-learning eliminates these issues as it provides consistent and standardised training every time. Each learner goes through the same experience regardless of when and where the course is taken.
- Current content – It enables the presentation of up-to-date training materials. Any changes in learning content, perhaps made necessary by changes in legislation or regulations, changes in learner needs, or best practice changes, can be made easily and immediately, in one place, ensuring the e-learning content is current and that learning is not static.
- Scalability and availability – E-learning topics can be rolled out to as many or as few employees as needed at any one time even when they are dispersed across regional or global locations, on varying shift patterns or in complex organisational structures. It is available 24/7, anywhere and whenever required and can be used continuously for ongoing learning, refreshers and reference.
- Easy tracking of course progress – Most e-learning incorporates tools to make it easy to track and monitor progress. This can be essential, for example, for organisations to have proof that their people have taken part in mandatory compliance training. It also provides learners the opportunity to participate in training at their own speed in small sections and return when it is convenient, knowing where they left off.
- Streamlines the on-boarding process – For new staff members on-boarding/induction can be perplexing, especially in a large organisation. Using e-learning can make things easier by introducing the organisation, its policies and procedures and its key figures step-by-step with digital courses. This will also free up time for the HR team.
Some barriers to utilising e-learning
Whilst e-learning has numerous advantages, some organisations perceive the following as challenges to successful utilisation:
- Allocating time – That is, ensuring learners make the time to participate, as it can be easy to prioritise completing work tasks over accessing digital learning opportunities.
- Gaining line manager support and commitment – Uninformed managers can impede the utilisation of e-learning, so training managers about digital learning and how it works is key, as learners need the support of line managers to complete e-learning and to transfer knowledge gained back into the workplace.
- Lack of access to IT facilities and/or basic IT skills in some employees – Many employees do not work in an office environment and need to be given access to IT facilities and often additional training to be able to use them effectively.
- Potential employee hostility towards e-learning – There may be many reasons for this, for example a preference for face-to-face training, literacy or language issues, antipathy towards training per se. As with any change, early adopters can help to overcome any resistance.
- Motivating learners to complete courses – Whilst e-learning is flexible in pace, it does require a level of motivation to complete, and managers may need to monitor this.
- Selecting the most appropriate learning – It is often a good idea for managers and learning professionals to undertake the e-learning themselves so that they are fully aware of the content and appropriateness for their employees. They need to have the ability to distinguish between differing performance and knowledge gaps to identify what e-learning content and level will be the most appropriate for their employees.
Making e-learning available to unprepared and unsupported learners is unlikely to be effective. Any online learning must be appropriately presented and adequately resourced, including providing learner and management support.
Benefits of e-learning for the learner
E-learning is often misunderstood by some learners as training that is simply delivered online. Recognising the benefits can enable people to see e-learning as an enjoyable, pressure-free learning experience that often leads to better retention of information and a strengthened interest for a subject.
- E-learning can be accessed from pretty much any device these days, meaning learning doesn’t have to be saved just for the classroom or even the home. Apps and online learning platforms via tablets and smartphones enable learners to continue the learning process 24/7 when it is convenient for them, including on the go, meaning they can make greater strides with their learning.
- It is discreet – not everybody feels comfortable learning in a large group, but e-learning allows everyone to tackle the subject at their own pace, with interactive tasks, ensuring a thorough understanding throughout each module.
- For individuals paying for their own development, e-learning makes learning much more affordable for them.
- Through discussion boards and chats, you are able to interact with other learners online and also clear up any concerns or queries.
- You are able to access links to various resources in varying formats so you can quickly check out a range of information sources to enhance your learning.
- E-learning is self-paced which means that you can study online and plan your own time schedule, without having to make personal sacrifices in order to meet class attendance requirements.
- E-learning is fundamentally learner-centred; it cultivates a “can do” attitude and allows for autonomous and active learning.
- E-learning takes into consideration the differences in learning styles of the learners and engages more senses while learning with text, pictures, sound and activities. This helps to improve subject retention and recall.
- A course can be taken any number of times, unlike face-to-face training. With online learning you can access the content an unlimited number of times which means if you haven’t grasped the topic first time around you can go back and try again.
- E-learning has benefits for older people as well. Education is proven to fight off dementia and depression, thanks to exercising the brain and the social interactions older people may not otherwise get. This can have profound socio-economic benefits for older generations.
Disabled learners studying online find it more fulfilling and less difficult to gain knowledge. While it is difficult for some disabled learners to access conventional education and training, this is not the case when they turn to online learning platforms.
- For people with learning disabilities studying online provides the learner the time and space to work. With e-learning, they can review materials and watch video lectures as many times as they need. Through the IT systems and software, learners who have dyslexia or a visual processing disorder can manipulate digital text by changing their font colour, style or size which helps them in processing the information effectively.
- For people with physical disabilities the most obvious benefit is that they can stay in their comfort zone without the difficulty of having to attend actual classes. There are integrated technologies for the learners who cannot type such as voice-to-text and voice-activated programmes.
- For people with visual impairment, it is often easier to access their computer to attend a class or participate in a learning programme. There are adaptive technologies such as braille keyboards or voice-to-text software and audio recordings to support learning.
- People with a hearing impairment can use technology to make their life easier. Through e-learning, they can view video lectures with subtitles, giving them more independence which they cannot experience in a classroom.
- People with mental disabilities can work and study in their own comfort zone, as it can sometimes be difficult to cope in some face-to-face situations which may raise their anxiety levels. Studying in their own surroundings through e-learning will help them to learn in a more relaxed environment.
Disadvantages of e-learning
As with everything there are always disadvantages, and this is also the case with e-learning.
- E-learning requires self-discipline and self-motivation in order to be successful. Because the learner is fully in charge of their own progress, they will literally get out of the learning what they put in.
- It misses the face-to-face aspect of learning, and for some people, having that face-to-face contact may be a huge motivator to them, which e-learning mostly lacks. Even if a learner has access to a real-life trainer online, the social aspect is missing, which may make e-learning not a suitable option for everybody.
- It is technology dependent and learners need access to appropriate hardware and software to benefit fully. Internet connections and bandwidth are particular problems.
- It doesn’t provide practical training. Whilst e-learning can provide the theory aspect of training, it does not provide practical training and practice, which may be needed in some subjects to ensure competency. This would be an example of when blended learning is required, which allows you to use e-learning alongside traditional face-to-face practical training and application.
- Whilst e-learning often comprises an assessment element or elements, these are not under strict examination conditions; this means that online assessment elements may not be suitable for some qualifications.
Getting started with e-learning
When you decide that you want to begin your e-learning experience, it is important to think about where and when you can study. Whilst e-learning is flexible you do still need to concentrate, so pick a time and place where you can pay attention without interruptions.
You will need reliable access to the internet in order to complete your e-learning; there’s nothing worse than losing connection mid-way through your study. Most e-learning requires you to use a well-known internet browser, for example Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer or Firefox, to be able to connect and access the site effectively, so you may need to check this.
Your computer’s operating system may also need to be updated to the latest version; this is often Windows – version 7 or higher, or Mac OSX – 10.6 and newer.
Now that you are set up to begin e-learning, you will need to identify your learning objectives and goals and select your course. To stay on track with your e-learning, make sure that you always keep in mind what you hope to accomplish by the end of it. The learning objectives and goals of the e-learning course can be an excellent road map during online learning – carefully read your online course requirements and any instructions.
Once you start to study, if you realise that despite your best efforts you cannot concentrate, consider stopping for an hour or for the night; it is better to wait until you are able to start afresh than to waste your time trying to focus.
That’s the beauty of e-learning; you can pause and go back whenever you need to. Ask for help if and when you need it. If you don’t ask for help when necessary, you may end up falling behind, which may lower your self-esteem, or you may just end up abandoning the online course, which will be such a waste.
Procrastination is the worst enemy of online learners, so make sure that you stay organised, motivated and self-disciplined as you only get out of it what you put in.
Most of all, enjoy the experience. E-learning can be fun, easy to navigate through and you can learn anything you want to learn, at your own pace.
One of the main and most often cited benefits of e-learning, is its flexibility. As we have seen, e-learning provides a learning experience which can be accessed at the most convenient time, can be provided in short segments, and can be tailored to suit a learner’s learning needs and style. It provides many more learning and development opportunities to millions of people who are able to access high-quality learning materials conveniently.