The Evolution of E-Learning

Five experts in online education stress that, to reach a burgeoning community of e-learners, educators need to keep in mind three important E’s: engagement, experience, and educational value.
The Evolution of E-Learning

Karen Mishra is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Vaida Linartaite works as chief specialist in the Lithuanian government’s law and information division in Vilnius. Both wanted to take an e-commerce course taught by Michael Rappa at North Carolina State University’s College of Management in Raleigh—but their busy schedules and distant locations made it impossible to attend in person.

Thanks to the Internet and a digitally savvy professor, that wasn’t a problem. Rappa includes an extensive online component to his course, “Managing the Digital Enterprise.” He designed a comprehensive Web site at, which incorporates course readings, links to online resources, video guest lectures, online student discussions, and podcasts in Rappa’s own voice explaining each lecture topic. While 50 students attended Rappa’s lectures in person, Mishra and Linartaite were among 15 who took the course completely online.

But did they learn as much as their in-class counterparts? Did they gain as much from interactions with other students? Both say, “Absolutely.” While their experience of the course may have been different than those who attended in person, each emphasizes that it was just as educationally fulfilling.

“I found myself getting drawn into extensive online conversations with other students. I know I spent as much time or more on this course as I would have if I had taken it ‘traditionally,’” says Mishra. “The downside is that I didn’t get in-class time with Dr. Rappa; but with the addition of his podcasts for each module, I felt I still learned a great deal from him.” She learned so much, in fact, that Rappa asked her to be his online teaching assistant this year.

Linartaite’s job required extensive travel, so she could not take part in the discussions or ask a real-time question. She compensated by delving deeply into the site’s resources, reading the discussions, and asking questions by e-mail. “E-learning is not easy, but I don’t think I learned less comprehensively by taking the course online,” says Linartaite. “What was amazing was how the online course combined theoretical knowledge with practical tasks.”

Mishra and Linartaite represent a growing number of motivated, organized, and engaged students who are turning to online classrooms for their educational needs. A recent survey by the research firm Eduventures found that approximately 50 percent of consumers planning to enroll in a postsecondary educational program say they prefer taking courses presented entirely in an online format or balanced between online and face-to-face instruction. A survey of 2,200 U.S. colleges and universities, a joint project of the College Board and the Sloan Consortium, found that nearly 3.2 million students took at least one online course during the fall of 2006—up from 2.3 million the previous year.

The technology allows educational providers and students to tap into expertise anywhere in the world, without travel expense or scheduling conflicts.
—Som Naidu, University of Melbourne

A small number of traditional universities have become successful, for-profit providers of online education. Last year, UMass Online, the University of Massachusetts’ online education division, announced that its enrollment had increased by 23 percent and that its program revenue had increased to $22.9 million, up from $17.4 million the year before. The University of Maryland and Penn State University also have established successful for-profit online ventures. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently announced its plan to launch its for-profit online degree program, The Global Campus, in 2008. Above all, educators are attempting to address common criticisms often aimed at online education providers such as the University of Phoenix—that online education models sometimes sacrifice quality for the bottom line. A number of faculty are working to develop best practices and pedagogy to make online education an extension of the quality found in their traditional classrooms.

BizEd asked five prominent educators and experts in online education to share their thoughts on the accelerating developments in online education: Som Naidu of the University of Melbourne in Australia; Rappa of NCSU; Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Diana Oblinger, vice president of EDUCAUSE in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Lee Schlenker of EM Lyon in France. They address many questions that now face business educators: How do schools design online courses that keep students engaged? How can educators meet their learning objectives for all their students, both on campus and online, while also adhering to rigorous educational standards?

While these experts see great things ahead for online education, they acknowledge that some caution is warranted. Rappa, for instance, emphasizes that courses without high levels of faculty engagement, interactive activities, and student involvement can provide less-than-ideal learning experiences. Zemsky believes that most faculty have shown little interest in how online technologies and pedagogical structures operate. Until they do, he argues, options in online education may continue to be limited.

Still, stories like those of Mishra and Linartaite indicate that students are not only becoming more accustomed to learning in online formats—many are seeking out these opportunities. It falls to educators, these experts argue, to catch up to where students already are.

‘The Right Tools to Learn’

Som Naidu
Executive Editor, Distance Education
Founding Editor, Electronic Journal of Instructional Science and Technology (e-JIST)
Associate Professor, University of Melbourne
Melbourne, Australia

Scientists have long studied the concept of “affordances”—that is, the ways animals, including humans, take advantage of the opportunities their environments provide. A person walking into a forest may see a path and think, “I can walk here.” He may see a bench and think, “I can sit on this.” The issue of affordances refers to how we find and use the tools at our disposal. When we look at online technologies, the concept of affordances is crucial. What tools are available to us? Which tools will students use? What tools will best help students learn?

One important affordance of online learning is flexibility, which allows students to learn at their own pace, at any time, from anywhere in the world. Another affordance is asynchronous communication, which allows students and faculty to communicate across time zones. I see this in my own experience. I’m a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, but I’m also an instructor for the University of Maryland in the United States. I’ve never seen or spoken to any of my students taking the University of Maryland course. Even so, the technology affords me the opportunity to teach them; it allows educational providers and students to tap into expertise anywhere in the world, without travel expense or scheduling conflicts.

Some of the current affordances of online education, however, are still far from ideal. Many course management systems that schools use to create online learning environments are still developed for the mass market. They are often simplified to the extent that they do not allow for many high-end simulations or modeling activities; they don’t allow academics to do what they want or need to do to create the most effective online courses. Very few professors have the technological savvy to step outside these mass-produced systems to create their own, more flexible and interactive platforms. The rest are forced to confine the online component of their courses to lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, e-mail discussion, and other static material.

Even so, I’m seeing promising changes in the software available. Companies like Blackboard are moving toward more customizable, open source platforms. They are thinking of ways to change their platforms to allow academics and others to develop their own simulations and learning tools that they then can operate within the system.

Instead of taping my lectures for off-campus students, I created 30-minute podcast “conversations,” as if I were sitting down with each of them over breakfast.
—Michael Rappa, North Carolina State University

When it comes to online learning, we must overcome two important obstacles: a lack of understanding of the advantages that online technology affords and a lack of training to use that technology to best advantage. Professors who have been teaching their subjects for years often take into the online environment the same tools that they used in the classroom. In effect, they stop at the bench without traveling farther to see what else the forest may have to offer. 

As educators, we need to make it our mission to explore all the technology at our disposal and provide the affordances that make online education rich and rewarding. Only then can we design optimum learning environments for students and provide them with the right tools to learn. 

‘The Future Is Great’

Michael Rappa
Professor of Technology Management
North Carolina State University College of Management
Raleigh, North Carolina

Eight years ago, I decided to pursue a grand experiment: to explore what it would be like to be a professor 15 or 20 years in the future. I created a course called “Managing the Digital Enterprise,” which would not only teach students about e-commerce, but also give them hands-on experience in today’s digital media. I also designed a Web site,, that incorporated all of my course materials and links to a variety of online resources.

I also decided not to limit access to the material to my students alone. I made the site open to any professor or student in the world. Today, hundreds of professors and thousands of students visit the site. A professor in West Virginia uses it as a textbook for her students. Professors in Florida and Singapore both put more students through the Web site than I do. Corporations send their workforces through the site and even support the effort monetarily to help us maintain the servers to accommodate the online traffic. It has been an amazing experiment.

I think, as educators, we have little choice but to embrace the technology wholeheartedly. We have to expect that, with each academic year, students will come to us with mindsets that have been increasingly shaped by the Internet. With each passing year, more will wonder why faculty aren’t taking advantage of the technology as much as they could.

The good news is that the technology available to faculty is better than ever. More schools are providing additional tech support. There are user-friendly, open-source software platforms available, like WordPress, a free blogging tool. There are easy-to-use Web page editors like Adobe’s GoLive, which faculty can use to design, customize, and control their own Web sites. This sets up an interesting paradox: New technologies make it easier for professors to develop online resources; but the longer faculty wait, the harder it will be for them to take the plunge.

New technologies like the audio- and video-sharing capabilities of podcasting and YouTube are especially exciting opportunities for faculty in terms of creating ongoing conversations with students. I discovered that when I taught my course to students at a distance for the first time. Instead of taping my lectures for off-campus students, I created 30-minute podcast “conversations,” as if I were sitting down with each of them over breakfast. Students who listened to the podcasts were able to have more personal interactions with me and the material than a recorded lecture could provide; students who attended the lecture could listen to the podcasts to reinforce what they’d heard in class.

Online technologies also offer faculty an incredible analytical advantage when it comes to assessing students’ mastery of the material. As a “digital professor,” I know how many times students listen to my podcasts and what Web-based materials they return to most often. I know exactly how much time students spend in the online forum. I often joke that, while many professors think all students wait until the last minute to do their homework, I may be the first professor who knows it empirically. The data is all there. I learned that when deadlines were too close together, students often compromised performance on one project to complete another. So, I separated my deadlines to allow my students to work more effectively on each assignment. It has been exciting to wake up every morning and have a complete view of what’s happening in my course.

Businesspeople involved with digital enterprises often report how much insight they have on their customers because of the data they collect. It’s no different for academics. We can use the technology to understand our students much better and make better decisions about how we reach them inside and outside the classroom. This is a great turn of events for educators.

I’ve met faculty who say, “Students want to be on the receiving end of information. They don’t want to hit ‘Send.’”
—Robert Zemsky, University of Pennsylvania

The message, then, for business schools is to encourage faculty to move in new directions. If schools set performance criteria for their professors based on the past, they’ll get professors who teach in the past. If schools set performance criteria based on the future, they’ll encourage professors to move into the future.

And the message to professors is this: The future is great. It’s much more fun than you might imagine.

‘We’re Back to Square One’

Robert Zemsky
Chair and CEO, The Learning Alliance
Professor, University of Pennsylvania
West Chester, Pennsylvania

A 2004 paper I wrote with Stanford professor William Massy outlined reasons why e-learning hasn’t had as much impact as expected. Our paper, “Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to E-Learning and Why,” points out that many educators expected a “whiz-bang” effect that would inspire whole new ways of teaching. Others believed it would significantly reduce the cost of educational delivery.

Today, however, we’ve made little progress on the “whiz-bang” front. Moreover, we’ve found that in some cases online courses actually cost more and take more time to deliver effectively than more traditional approaches. 

But perhaps the most telling reason that e-learning has developed differently than we expected is that we didn’t take the time to discover how students really use technology to further their educational goals. Today, we’re realizing how little we really know about how students learn in online environments.

Case in point: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently offered $50 million in grants to universities and nonprofits over the next five years to fund research on how children use different technologies. That action is an amazing admission. It says that today, almost a decade into the online revolution, we’re almost back to square one when it comes to understanding just how technology helps students learn.

But we are getting there. With the influx of classroom technologies, faculty have changed the way they teach. They’ve shifted from a lecture style to a more participatory style. They’re creating student work groups, whose collaboration is often supported by online tools. They’re requiring students to interact more with the material, using tools such as online multimedia and software simulations. However, most faculty are still just having students “bring all the chairs in a circle” and talk, whether in class or in online forums. Students are using e-mail, listservs, and video conferencing to communicate, but they’re still not using it extensively to create learning networks. Faculty are using the technology to post course content and encourage online discussion, but many are still not using it to teach.

That might be slowly changing. I’ve met faculty who say, “We’re going to do our own version of the Wikipedia,” in which students and faculty all actively contribute to and continually update course content in an online format. That kind of project is certainly an intriguing use of the technology as a teaching and learning tool. Then again, I’ve met faculty who say, “Students want to be on the receiving end of information. They don’t want to hit ‘Send.’”

These two viewpoints indicate that we’re still in a holding pattern when it comes to e-learning. As an industry, higher education isn’t yet using the technology to its best advantage. We’re not yet creating truly interactive learning environments. Eventually, it will happen, but not anytime soon.

‘A Web of Co-Creation’

Diana Oblinger
Vice President, EDUCAUSE
Raleigh, North Carolina

We’re seeing a fundamental change in education. Schools have changed, student expectations have changed, and the technology has changed. But the biggest change I’ve seen is in the way we think about online technology. 

In the past, we viewed the Internet as a one-way channel that feeds users information. But that view is incredibly out of date. We now have resources like Wikipedia, YouTube, social networks, online chat rooms, instant messaging, and blogs, where users are creating and sharing information. The online environment has become a web of co-creation and information sharing. This development has empowered all users.

In the past, we viewed the Internet as a one-way channel that feeds users information. But that view is incredibly out of date.
—Diana Oblinger, EDUCAUSE

As more schools develop online learning options, they must keep this cultural shift in mind. As students take control over their own learning processes, educators are asking three important questions: How can we make the online learning environment an engaging environment, in which students are active participants in the learning process? How do we create learning activities that help them truly master the information? And how do we adapt the learning environment to suit students’ different learning styles?

To engage students more fully in the process, many educators are following a pedagogical concept called “learning to be.” This concept is an apprenticeship model of learning that teaches students how to be a manager or investment banker or accountant, not just learn the subject matter behind the disciplines. This concept is about more than delivering course content; it’s about developing the habits of mind inherent in a professional field.

To design activities that truly teach students “to be,” many educators are using a blended model of online and face-to-face opportunities that offer students greater flexibility in when and how they master the material. Students may listen to an expert speaking about a subject online, and then take part in an online simulation that puts them in a situation similar to the one the expert describes. Then, they may do exercises that allow them to reflect on the material or work in small groups to share their observations. Such experiences not only expose students to new ideas, but also allow students to try out the concepts for themselves.

Finally, to address different learning styles effectively, schools need to make sure that the technology they choose for each learning objective is appropriate for what they want to achieve. Too many people attempt to replicate a textbook’s content on the computer screen, but this doesn’t serve any purpose. Some material is best distributed on paper; other materials, such as video, audio, Web sites, online forums, and blogs, are best presented in the digital environment.

Most of us, including business schools, have not yet grappled with the fact that we’re seeing a significant cultural shift. We’re moving from the 1990s vision of the Internet as a content delivery system to the present-day vision of the Internet as an immersive environment, where learners have a great deal of control and exercise a tremendous amount of choice.

Business schools need to recognize students’ growing empowerment. Schools with the most effective online programs will emphasize faculty development, tech support, and integrated approaches that accommodate different skills and different ways of thinking. They’ll set high expectations for student involvement in the process. They’ll go beyond content delivery to offer experiences that help students “learn to be,” not just watch and listen.

Adopting a ‘Work-Based Pedagogy’

Lee Schlenker
Affiliate Professor of Information Systems Management
EM Lyon
Lyon, France

Perhaps the time has passed for business schools to view technology as a cost-cutting measure or as a marketing device to attract new students. The potential value proposition of information technology today isn’t found in its features and functions, but in how we can use IT to enhance management education itself.

To a large extent, business educators’ reliance on both traditional lectures and classroom settings has distorted their view of management education. We too often focus on models, rather than on reality. We teach to individuals, rather than to teams of people who work together. We offer best practices, rather than explore the behaviors that exceptional managers share. When it comes to technology, we ask our students to work in course management systems and virtual classrooms that have no resemblance or relevance to business beyond their courses. As a result, we’re often better at teaching content than challenging our students to develop their own competencies.

With this in mind, my colleagues Adam Mendelson of IESE, Toby Wolf of MIT, and I suggest a model of management education that we call “work-based pedagogy,” which focuses on how people actually use technology in the workplace to achieve their objectives. The value of technology isn’t in technology itself—it’s in how managers use technology to deal with their business challenges. How do we use information technologies to capture client challenges, aggregate the costs and benefits of change, and communicate our propositions to our sponsors, teams, and customers? Whether students are using e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, podcasts, or collaborative learning networks, business schools can engage students directly to develop their competencies using the technologies that help shape the modern workplace.

In my master’s classes this year, for example, I have asked my students to create podcasts for their final presentations. Their projects are judged on how an audience—one that isn’t confined to the classroom and forced to listen—reacts to their podcasts. I want students to realize that using different communication channels requires mastering different kinds of communication skills. This project, of course, has made the students somewhat anxious, because they have been trained over the years to become PowerPoint zombies.

Even so, such projects are valuable because they can help dispel this anxiety. They help students develop a variety of work-based skills and encourage them to think about how they deliver value. In business, value often isn’t delivered in the classroom, or even in the conference room. Often, it’s delivered through online channels to clients who have little time for face-to-face meetings.

Learning technologies are just one piece of the management education puzzle. We must evaluate how technology helps to enhance or extend a business school’s larger value proposition. Businesses today want to hire students who possess the behaviors and visions that correspond to the way they’ll work in the future. Business schools can use technology to design work environments, online and off, that will help students develop those competencies.

A Great Experiment

Although these experts offer a variety of perspectives, most agree that as time goes on, students’ appetite for online educational experiences will intensify. They’ll choose online formats not only to suit their schedules, but also to learn the online communication and collaborative skills they’ll need to conduct business effectively. Not only that, but some observers predict that in the next decade, online education may become a truly a la carte proposition—students might attend one school in person and another online, or choose individual courses from a variety of institutions. As their options increase, students will be better able to build their own personal learning environments.

Online students such as Mishra and Linartaite note that online instruction can be ineffective if instructors do not make the parameters and expectations of their courses clear. Frequent instructor interaction and detailed weekly outlines of instructor expectations are crucial to designing valuable online learning experiences.

As e-learners become more sophisticated, most will gravitate to courses that present information dynamically, use diverse media effectively, facilitate discussion actively, and incorporate high levels of personal interaction and group collaboration. That may be a welcome message for faculty who remain reluctant to investigate what current technologies have to offer. Except for the computer screen and keyboard, these objectives aren’t so different from what educators have done in traditional classrooms all along.