Prudens Information Resources for the Internet

e-Learning Challenges

A Prudens e-Report

Characteristics of E-Learning

Advances in information technology have stimulated the rapid growth of e-learning, which has also been called distance learning. It is important to note that distance learning existed before the invention of the computer in the form of correspondence courses. But when the technology for online learning, or e-learning, became available, many managers and administrators believed that this was the means to reduce costs, to standardize syllabi, and to introduce everyone to the best teachers. But are these assertions, or expectations true?

Like any new cultural phenomenon, e-learning has its strengths and weaknesses, as well as its proponents and detractors. Rather than argue one side or the other on any particular issue, this section presents 11 challenges that, if addressed, should provide answers that help us begin to understand the real usefulness of e-learning. These are:

Consideration of these challenges could be helpful in establishing policies, drafting plans, and making decisions about e-learning.


A challenge for e-learning is how articulation, the transfer of course credits between schools for equivalent courses, occurs between virtual universities and between virtual and traditional degree granting institutions? A particular concern is how to handle individuals who, for various reasons, are not in a degree-granting program but want to transfer their course credits into one.

Articulation is usually available within a system of colleges with common standards for course offerings, such as the California State University System. It may also be available between state-funded systems, as mandated by the State legislature, or sometimes between private colleges that develop reciprocal articulation agreements in addition to other forms of cooperation between the schools.

The bottom line in this challenge is showing that a virtual course is just as good as a classroom course covering the same material. Since this is a paradigm shift in education, it has many personal, political and business ramifications and will not be easy to resolve in the short-term. The government can step in, if there is a reason to, and require that the two be made equal and verified through standards, and testing. But by doing so, the government will push virtual education into the main stream, and its backers will assume a political risk. Certification boards and standards bodies can also determine that courses and schools meet their standards. The private sector can also play a role by paying for employee courses regardless of whether they are online or not, and by hiring graduates without bias of where they got their degree.

To date the administrations of traditional learning institutions have usually opposed these possible initiatives. But in the end they may have to turn to e-learning themselves, at least as a partial solution to the prohibitive costs of serving fluctuating student populations.


Progress is being made in the competency-based assessment of courses by virtual universities, such as the University of Phoenix Online and the Western Governors University. In fact these efforts may be viewed as ground-breaking, and could point to a change in course assessment throughout higher education.

Assessment may eventually show that virtual education is as good as the traditional approach, although it could point to differences depending on the material covered and the type of student. Attempts to teach certain types of courses online could be abandoned, whereas other courses could move from the classroom to cyberspace at the student's convenience. It also follows that a hybrid approach may be the best approach for certain material.

Community Development

Is there a link between e-learning programs and community-based programs that makes e-learning more effective than traditional learning? E-learning could conceivably provide different groups with educational opportunities, especially when the e-course can be tailored to group needs. In addition, some state college systems are mandated to work with community development and economic development efforts. The potential outreach of e-learning to groups unable to travel to a classroom may be one of its greatest assets. Another possibility is to physically combine hybrid learning (a combination of traditional and online learning) with community programs at a Technology Center, which allows the sharing of scarce resources by schools, business and government.


The costs of E-Learning are not well understood and certainly differ for those with different learning goals. Many managers expect that costs for e-learning are lower, and have been surprised when the opposite is the case. This has spawned studies of the ROI of e-learning in the realm of corporate training. But there are many intangibles such the valuing the employee's performance before and after training that are difficult to measure.

For corporations, the cost of E-Learning is likely to be less expensive than the cost of sending employees out of town for training, but in other situations it may not be clear whether it is less expensive or not.

E-Learning is expensive because technology requirements change and involve the setup and updates of communications, servers and software. It is also a mistake to think that more students can be taught by a single instructor. Schools and courses are beginning to realize that students need a lot of contact time with their online teachers and are limiting the size of classes. For example, the University of Phoenix Online limits each class to 10-12 students.

In addition there is a need for additional "help desk" workers to get students through late-night equipment glitches and to answer questions when needed. The online maxim is that the further away the learner -- the more assistance he or she will require.

Course Development

About two or three times more work is required to set up an online course than a comparable course taught in a classroom. The amount of work and the cost can be much higher depending on the amount of multimedia incorporated into the course.

Course development is often a hidden cost when it is passed on to the instructor. In addition to the additional work, some institutions won't allow the instructors to own the work! This about face from the traditional approach to training and teaching allows the course to be repeated without paying a royalty to the instructor. Some institutions see the course as a source of revenue and apparently won't share the fruits of its success with the instructor. Because of the extra work and the disincentive of ownership, there is a real danger that the quality of online courses developed by in-house instructors will be low.

For those institutions that have content in the form of existing traditional courses, the challenge is whether it is better for the organization to develop this into online courses using in-house resources, or to have an outside company do it. For those without content, the challenge is whether to develop it in-house or to have it done outside. However, the ownership of content is becoming a moot point, since it is freely available on the Internet from programs such as MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. However the course still has to be organized, and its presentation designed.

The design of a course templates and assistance in the form of "surrounds" or supporting services, such as online chat and webcasting, may be obtained from private companies. Purchasing services or entering into an agreement with these e-learning companies focuses attention to costs, the quality of the course and intellectual property.

Intellectual Property

Prior to online learning, it was agreed that instructors owned the content of their courses. Now some institutions claim to own the content, probably because it sees the material as a potential long-term revenue source. The ownership of online content is not the same at all institutions. First it depends on any agreement between the institution and the instructor, and then on the policy of the institution. If there isn't an agreement that delineates ownership, then the institution, as an employer, has the right to own the employee's work, even though this flies in the face of academic freedom. If the instructor is a contractor, then he or she owns the content unless the contract states otherwise.

Technology partners of the institution may own the technology that delivers the course - in other words co-own the course, since the content can't be easily separated from the technology. In fact the institution may have an agreement with the tech provider and can't separate the content and technology.

Learning Styles

An emerging approach in education, based on Howard Gardener's work,1 holds that different types of intelligence tend to learn in different ways. If true, it has great significance for e-learning, and might explain the low completion rates for some types of online learning courses.

Learning orientation theory attempts to explain differences in learners, or learning orientations based on environmental factors. Learning orientations are affected by outside influences, psychological aspects, interactions in class groups, all of which are held to affect the individual and how he or she relates to course design. A concern for students that is relevant here is maintaining relationships between teachers and students, and between students2. Integrating learning styles into the design of e-learning courses is additional challenge for course developers.

Lifelong Learning

The need for lifelong learning explains the success of virtual universities and continuing education programs. Additionally, advances in technology and work force turn over provide a constant demand for part-time learning either in a school or work setting as corporate training. Since most adults are not able to devote full-time to learning, e-learning may have a real advantage over traditional learning if it can be made convenient and satisfying to the student, and acceptable to an employer.

Personalized Teaching

Personalized teaching allows the individual to take control of the learning experience in a single person environment. This differs from the challenge of learning styles, discussed above, in that the challenge can be met through the introduction of technology to accommodate learning differences such as language, culture, education level, and training to date. The self-directed student in a friendly learning environment should greatly increase the effectiveness of the online learning experience.

A Solution to the Cream or Mandate Dilemma?

A popular business model for providing e-learning is to find groups such as corporate managers who pay (or their corporations can pay) for an online course . This approach tends to separate e-learning into those who can afford outside services, the "cream", and those who can't.

In comparison public institutions often have a mandate to provide subsidized educational services to less fortunate populations. One approach that has been tried is for e-learning companies to form partnerships with educational institutions to develop institutional content into online courses and to provide technology, in exchange for the ownership of the online content. Even though the institution is allowed to use the courses at no cost, few if any of these partnerships have survived to the current day.

The solution, which could have a huge impact on all levels of e-learning, is now apparent: open source e-learning. Classroom content is freely available in programs such as MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. Although this content needs further development to be adapted to an online course, it sets the stage for an open source movement in e-learning. Additionally numerous initiatives have sprung up to support open source development, namely to develop open source presentation and supporting software. See the forthcoming companion e-Report on Open Source e-Learning.

Strategic Opportunity

E-learning can be used to teach those who can't physically attend classes, or to form a quorum of students from a large pool for less popular courses such as Ancient Greek. E-learning can also serve workers within the organization who have similar skills, or reach across organizations to unite workers without peers such as Emergency Preparedness Managers.

Opportunities for e-learning are growing. Take, for example, the wireless-based Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS). With it each worker is given a wearable unit to provide directions for complex tasks. The future development of wireless communications should increase the opportunities for personalized learning.

Dr. James E. Burke is a Principal in Burke Technology Services (BTS). BTS provides business assistance to startup technology companies, or organizations planning or integrating new technologies; develops and manages technology projects; performs technology evaluation and commercialization, and assists in technology-based economic development.

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