1. Terminology: e-learning, online learning and distance learning/training

Online teaching and learning becomes more and more popular nowadays. Have you discovered that there are slight differences between the three terms, although they are closely connected?

  •  E-learning/training involves the use of a computer, or an electronic devise (e.g. a mobile phone, CD-ROM, audio or video tape, satellite TV) to provide a training or educational material. The training or education program is delivered electronically, led by an instructor, or without an instructor (e.g. “self-support learning”).  E-learning applications and processes include mainly:

– web-based learning;
– computer-based learning;
– virtual classrooms, and
– digital collaboration.

Acronyms like CBT (Computer-Based Training), IBT (Internet-Based Training) or WBT (Web-Based Training) are used as synonyms to e-Learning.

  •  Online learning/training involves using mainly the Internet, or in some cases also an Intranet. Other electronic devices can also be used to provide learning materials.
  • Distance learning/training methods rely on a variety of information technologies to deliver course materials and instruction to students. These include the use of multimedia online activities, print materials, web, e-mail, Internet, CD-Rom, computer software, audio/video conferencing, audio/video tapes and TV or radio. Any particular course might use a combination of delivery methods.  Distance learning usually combines e-learning methods with “offline” seminars and lectures.
  • Supported open learning” is a concept used by Open University London. “Open learning” means that students are learning in their own time by reading course material, working on course activities, writing assignments and perhaps working with other students; and “supported” means support from a tutor and the student services staff at the OU Regional Centers, as well as from centralized areas such as the Library of the Open University Students Association.

The common learning/training methodology in all three groups is the following: Usually courses packages are sent out to learners (or are at disposal to learners) prior to the  start of the course. E-learning, online learning and distance learning requires access to vast amount of resources (documents, articles, publications, links, video and audio materials, case studies, etc.), which should be available to learners. Usually these are online libraries and resources centers, as well as “electronic reading rooms” where learners can access background materials online. During the course, learners may interact with tutors (instructors, lecturers) and other learners by different media – via phone and/or computer – email, forums, conferences, etc. There are interim (one or more) assignments and final assignment, which can be submitted either by regular mail or electronically via a website.  Assignments are then marked and returned to learners in similar fashion. The final decision on passing the course by each student is in the hands of an individual tutor, approved finally by a Board/Committee, running the program (in case a Board is set up). All these methods of learning require self discipline and a significant amount of reading, writing, reflection, interaction, and completion of activities and assignments by the students/participants.

learning_management2. The ingredients of the virtual classroom

A core of most of the e-learning platforms is the Virtual Classroom (VC). This is a web-space, designed for real-time (or asynchronized) classroom teaching and moderated and led by a trainer/instructor. It provides opportunities for trainers to deliver training materials and sessions, and for participants to have access to them, as well as to attend course sessions (in real time, or by recording).  The main objective of VC is to improve access by allowing remote participation and to increase collaborative mode of learning. Virtual classrooms can be of two main types:

  • Asynchronous:  when classes are conducted through email correspondence, forums, and newsgroups.
  • Synchronous:  conducted with the use of chat rooms, whiteboards, teleconferencing and other tools. These online methods give students the chance to interact with their virtual classmates as well as with their mentors in real time.

Below are the important ingredients of any virtual classroom:

  •  Course outline:  a summary and curricula of the course covering the main objectives, the topics covered by the course, the methodology of teaching/learning, the methods of evaluation (interim and final). Course outline is prepared by the trainer for each course and approved by a Training/Academic Board (if there is one assigned).
  • Course materials (resources): These are structured resources (articles, books, publications, documents, online libraries and links), as well as multimedia parts (mainly videos), which are selected and collected by the tutor, and are at disposal to the trainees. The materials are provided electronically and can be viewed online.  E-libraries become very popular not only for higher education students and schools – business companies and organizations also convert their libraries and piles of documents to e-libraries which allow more books to be stored and leaving physical space for other purposes.
  • Interactions between students and between them and the tutor (e.g. discussions of problems, solving exercises, case studies, review questions, etc.). This part of the classroom allows the use of electronic media and web 2.0 tools, like a discussion forum, blog space, chat room, voice mail, e-mail, etc.

                       – Real time discussions: they allow students to interact with each other at the same time. In international training, this type of communication is not widely used due to difficulties to organize timing and access from different geographic areas.   

                            – Video conferencing allows students to create verbal communication, but the cost of software and hardware may be a barrier to making it popular. –  Some courses have been converted to podcasts in order to make toe course more accessible, as students can download podcasts at any time to their mp3 players or smart phones.

  • Homework assignments and interim evaluation: Learning process requires regular homework assignments which usually are submitted electronically (tests, simulation tests, case studies, project work, group assignment, etc.). Tutors help (where needed) by: an online help desk, Q/A online sessions, email, personalized communication, skype, or other methods.
  • Final exam: It is usually done in a form of a final test, project to complete, writing an essay after reading texts, or other methods.

Depending on the methodology and preparation of the course materials, the courses can be: mainly text-based, textbook-based, video-based, audio-based, or peer-to-peer courses.

3. Key ingredients of e-learning/training

Starting a new online program is a multi-layer process, which requires consideration of several key areas and answering of the following questions:

  • Content and methodology

The e-earning methodology has to combine the principles of:  project management, online learning specificity, visual aspects and good design to ensure that participation in online learning is engaging, and involves interactive experience that meet the desired learning outcomes. Questions to consider:

                     – Subject matters: Are the training topics suitable for online training?
                     – Level of training: Is this going to be a basic program, or an advanced one?
                     – The number of courses offered and their content: What is the overall concept for the training and how the content is split between different courses?
                     – The content structure: How the content can be organized in a clear and understandable manner, with all logistics and details? What the planned combination is between online and offline learning methods: The research shows that a combination of e-learning tools with face-to-face contact, study visits, etc. is the most effective.
                     – Duration:  What is the duration of the each course, as well as the duration of the whole program? Too short courses might look not that serious and not sufficient, too long courses/modules are difficult to implement for busy professionals.
  •  Participants’ number, skills, attitude and background
                    – Is the training for young people or for adults?
                    – Are the students professionals in the field, or beginners?
                    – How many trainees are expected to be involved in the e-learning process? This is an important question, as available technical tools and software for e-learning (packages and prices offered) depends on the number of people participating in the training process.
                    – What is the geographic spread of the trainees? Online learning is as more cost effective as larger the number of the participants is, and the greater the geographic spread is. On another hand, involving more than one country in the e-learning process creates other problems, incl. language barriers and increased costs for translation.
                    – What is the attitude of potential students towards using online spaces for learning, especially in terms of what kind of additional information skills they need to acquire to enroll in the training?
  •  The training teams
                    – How the training team is formed and on what principle?
                    – What are the requirements for selecting trainers?
                    – What are the skills of the trainers in using online tools , and tools for e-learning in particular?
                    – How much time and efforts are required for training the trainers in using the chosen technical software for e-learning?
  •  The technical platform
                    – What are the main criteria for choosing a technical platform?
                    – How to make a choice between open software options and ready commercial products?
                    – What set of technical applications is necessary for running the e-learning platform considering: the aims of the training, the content structure, the profile and the expected number of trainees?
  •  Capacity/capability to develop online learning: This aspect concerns the ability of the organization to develop: the e-learning content/methodology, the training teams, and the technical platform, as well as to administer and coordinate the e-learning process. Usually a combination between “in-house” solution and outsourcing parts of the training is preferable.
In case you do not have time and resources to develop your own learning platform, here are some tips on how to use a ready e-learning platform among the many existing today:
This is a list of platforms for publishing and selling of online courses:
Look also here:
And finally, the most popular (considered by many online learners as the best) online education and e-learning websites:
If you have more time, you can browse a much longer list of online places to educate for free in many fields – science and health, business and money, history and world culture, and much more:

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