E-learning is considered the latest advance in technology-based learning. It is generally regarded as "electronic" delivery of learning on the Web, or Internet-enabled learning. E-learning is seen as an alternative to taking courses in the traditional classroom setting, providing flexibility and convenience in education. Multimedia courses to harness the full potential of the Internet and new media technologies are now being developed. The model that is emerging is access to learning, where, how and when it is needed, in a learning environment that exists almost entirely on the Web.

As stated in a KnowledgeNet white paper, "Exploring the E-learning Myth," the ultimate learning experience is one "that adapts to the student's level of expertise, that's engaging, animated, full of relevant examples and yes, delivered by real live humans in real time. There would be simulations and hands-on labs as well as quizzes, pre-assessment tests, online assistance, assignments and monitoring 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week."

E-learning's advantages - its flexibility and round-the-clock access to any number of courses - make it particularly attractive to corporate trainers. However, many companies are reluctant to state that relevant savings exist. According to the research survey of 250 firms presented in the Feb. 26, 2001 issue of Information Week, 46% already see a return on investment (ROI), but 21% say it will take a year or more to report ROI on their programs.

Corporate entities are typically earlier adopters of new technology than are academic institutions. This is often attributed to the more complex decision-making process in the academic world. It is predicted that e-learning businesses will be worth more than $7 billion by 2002. It is noted in the same Information Week research survey that favorable results are identified in improved employee performances, increased sales and better customer satisfaction.

Education's use of the Internet and of e-learning has grown substantially. Students are setting their own time schedules, learning from each other and from instructors all over the globe. Most higher education institutions offer e-learning opportunities. For example, California State University (CSU) recently announced its 25th anniversary of providing "distributed learning." The university has enrolled many students in over 800 courses in 40 disciplines. The Education Department of the State of Pennsylvania is offering online professional development to more than 100,000 teachers. They take courses on the Web toward earning credit for 180 hours of mandatory continuing education training every five years. Two courses are now available: one that is focused on reading, and another that focuses on using technology in the classroom. The courses are designed so that the content can be applied across all subject areas. The U.S. Navy has partnered with 16 colleges to offer sailors an opportunity to complete full degree programs using e-learning. Since not all submarines and aircraft carriers provide Internet access, video and print-based courses are also available.

One of the first public school programs to offer high school courses for credit over the Internet is in Eugene, OR. It makes 50 asynchronous classes available to students around the world. A new company called K12, chaired by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, plans to market courses in language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, music and art. Prices are to range from $250 to $5,000, depending on what combination of individual courses, personal tutoring and equipment is needed. The goal is to enroll 100,000 students by 2005, and to provide the curriculum for virtual charter schools in Pennsylvania, California and Alaska.

A great deal of concern exists among educators. Governor Dean of Vermont expressed this very well at a Governors' meeting. "One of the things that is going to happen is an unbelievable revolution in higher education. What's going to happen is that distance learning will take off, and the only people who are not going to be affected are the top 100 or 200 universities; those which have a big endowment or a big reputation. They are probably going to do business as usual. But for most places, I think in the next five years, instead of going to a four-year college and paying $15,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 per year, students are going to work and take courses on the Internet. Our fourth largest industry is in higher education. We have 26 institutions of higher education. We bring in enormous amounts of money from students who come to Vermont. What I've got to figure out and what our college people have to figure out is how are we going to continue that income stream?"

It is recognized that e-learning is becoming a significant force in education and training. The number of students involved grows and the demand will probably exceed the availability of course material. Colleges and universities will continue to collaborate among themselves and with government institutions to provide non-traditional educational experiences. However, e-learning will not totally replace traditional classroom instruction. It is important that content and course development be the responsibility of instructors, and that they remain actively engaged in selecting and creating an e-learning program.

E-learning requires significant investments of time and money, both to develop courses and for revision of courses. Potential for large-scale usage has been over-sold, and return on investment is over-stressed. Whether it shall result in better learning and higher efficiency still needs to be proven.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.