The Future of E-Learning


Like much in technology, the notion of e-learning has evolved over the last decade. The phrase itself seems to have come from distance learning, a 1980’s term referring to delivering instruction over satellite. (One could argue that correspondence courses were the first distance learning courses, but we won’t go back that far.) Originally used in higher education to define courses delivered over the Internet, e-learning has grown to include virtually any use of technology to deliver curriculum or instruction. Market Data Retrieval (MDR) still uses the term “distance learning” for purposes of comparison with prior surveys. In “The College Technology Review: 2003-2004 Academic Year,” MDR notes: “The term has come to mean any type of nonclassroom academic offering - including Internet, satellite, videoconferencing or other virtual setting. Increasingly, these programs utilize a combination of technologies, although most preserve many of the same structures of traditional classroom courses with lectures, opportunities for interaction with professors, ‘homework’ assignments, and examinations and other methods to assess student learning” (p. 20-21).

Growth in Distance Learning

According to MDR, distance learning programs are offered by two-thirds of colleges and universities, and the percentage of institutions offering accredited degrees through distance learning has increased to about 55%. The University of Ph'enix, a for-profit institution, has grown into a huge and profitable entity on the back of e-learning, and an entire niche industry of course management systems (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT, eCollege) has grown with the field. The course management systems niche is interesting in two ways: one of its members, Blackboard, went public this summer, and the niche has spawned a major collaborative open-source project, the Sakai Project (online at, sponsored by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Indiana University, MIT and Stanford University. The sponsors have pledged to begin using the Sakai course management product in 2005, and more than 40 other universities have said they will give it a try as well. This growing marketplace is another sign that e-learning is a viable force in the business world as well as in the education sector.

This issue of T.H.E. Journal provides what could be called the beginnings of a “normative forecasting” exercise regarding e-learning. Normative forecasting involves describing a possible future for a topic (e-learning), looking at the current iterations of the topic, and then charting alternative pathways from the possible future to the present. One possible future for e-learning is provided by T.H.E. Journal ’s own editorial board member Dr. Chris Dede in the first of a two-part feature article titled “Enabling Distributed Learning Communities Via Emerging Technologies.” This thoughtful article looks at how e-learning has the potential to evolve into rich learning communities distributed around the globe. By examining his assumptions about educational improvement, Chris demonstrates the difference between distance learning and distributed learning, which is “a term used to describe educational experiences that are distributed across a variety of geographic settings, across time and across various interactive media.” This is clearly not your parent’s e-learning. Growing from distributed learning are learning communities. Chris g'es on to describe how three complementary interfaces will shape how people learn, and provides a vignette set in the future to show how these interfaces can enable distributed learning communities for students.

A look at the current situation with e-learning is provided by our Applications stories and other feature article. Sue Cooper of Anna McDonald Elementary writes of something more prevalent in these days of accountability: using the Web to determine what students know and are able to do. The use of technology takes this student activity far beyond practicing test-taking skills to providing teachers with pinpoint information about how students are doing in specific skill areas. Another Applications story, from Maria Cornelli of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, brings a new twist on a classic distance learning effort of bringing an unfamiliar aspect of the world to students via video by adding interactivity through videoconferencing. When collaborative technology tools are added to e-learning, virtual communities begin to be established. Punahou School in Hawaii has developed a customized portal for students, teachers and community members. While many other schools have similar portals and tools, what Punahou demonstrates is more than e-mail and Web site utilization - it is a change in how a school operates. Finally, Dr. Paula Boxie of Miami University describes significant change in K-12 student use of technology, university faculty use of technology, and how student teachers interact with the K-12 students.

Becoming an Advocate for Technology and Education

On a final note, as a kid, I used to read the newspaper from back to front because that’s where the comics were located. I suggest you read the last page first in this issue; not because it is comical, but because it is urgent. Mark Schneiderman discusses something that we must do in technology and education: advocate a bolder education vision for the future. If we do not advocate through the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training (, or other similar efforts headed up by CoSN and ISTE, we will be in danger of losing much of the momentum in technology and education that has been built up over the last 30 years. The House Appropriations Committee has proposed cutting $91.8 million from the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program - Title II, Part D of No Child Left Behind - and has proposed cuts in other programs in technology. Overall, in the House bill, education stands to gain about $2.1 billion with most of it going to Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Without an outcry from educators using technology, members of Congress may think that these cuts in technology are OK. They are not OK, and we need to let politicians know.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.