Since its inception over two decades ago, online learning has grown and evolved into a popular educational pathway to supplement or replace traditional face-to-face learning.
Before the pandemic, Research and Markets forecasted the online education market as $350 billion by 2025¹; however, after the Covid-19 outbreak saw countless schools, universities and companies take up online learning to enable them to keep teaching their communities safely, this number is likely to rise.
Although the education system is returning to ‘normal’, online learning still maintains a strong presence and won’t be going anywhere, any time soon. In this article, we take a look at the history of online learning, how it’s impacted students and the pros and cons that the learning gateway brings about today.
The principles behind online learning have been well documented throughout history and there’s evidence suggesting that early forms of e-learning existed as far back as the 19th century².
The official beginnings of ‘e-learning’, however, came around much later. There are numerous examples of machines and tools being used for educational purposes in the past but e-learning in the modern sense of the term is a relatively new concept. The term ‘e-learning’ has only been in existence since 1999, when the word was first used at a computer-based training (CBT) systems seminar. Following this first use of the term, other worlds were thrown around in search of an accurate description, such as ‘online learning’ and ‘virtual learning’, which stuck around as solid alternatives².
Not long after, in the 2000s, businesses began using e-learning to train their employees. This gave both new and experienced workers the opportunity to improve their industry knowledge and expand their skill set. At home, individuals were granted access to programs that allowed them to earn online degrees and enrich their lives through deeper insights².
Here’s a handy timeline of e-learning throughout history:
Online learning has evolved far beyond its original capabilities and intentions, into a highly sought-after way to study a degree, undertake vocational training, upskill, or simply develop a new skill or hobby. Today, it can be accessed on all sorts of devices and even personalised to students, making it an accessible and invaluable tool in one’s educational journey.
E-learning is no longer limited to a didactic method that has a one-way monologue from the teacher to the student. Now, students can play an active role in the learning process thanks to regular feedback, assessments, and more socratic, participatory engagement in community groups via social media apps and webinars. These additions have substantially improved the effectiveness of the online teaching system, bringing it on par with classroom-based learning while also offering a unique set of benefits.
Speaking of benefits, here are the advantages e-learning can bring to both students and distributors.
Considering that content is shared with a larger audience at the same time, fewer trainers are needed – keeping teaching costs down. Since the cost of teaching is low, the expenses that fall on students also tend to be low. This makes e-learning more accessible to more people, and also far more economical than traditional classroom education.
When it comes to what you can learn online, the options are almost endless. There’s essentially an e-learning resource available for any field you can think of, whether it be religion, commerce, fashion design, philosophy, programming, painting or yoga.
Online learning opens up a world of opportunity when it comes to who you can connect with. Participants of a course can engage with like-minded individuals across the world, sharing information and ideas, and learning from each other (as well as the content).
Another benefit of online learning is that it’s super flexible and can be conducted anywhere, at any time. Not being bound to a physical learning location means students and teachers can be present at opposite ends of the world, in different time zones, and effectively engage in their virtual classroom.
Since e-learning takes place over the web, costs are kept significantly down when it comes to creation and distribution. This is a major drawcard for education providers who want to provide the same quality of education for less.
Another benefit of online learning is that it keeps everyone on a level playing field. Unlike face-to-face settings where different educators have their own method of teaching, and each class receives different information, the content on an e-learning platform is consistent. Participants can also revise this content at any point in time, helping maintain a reasonable standard of quality across the board.
Like most things, online learning does have some potential disadvantages.
Learning remotely can involve a lot of independent learning, and while some students will thrive in this setup, others who find comfort in their community on campus may struggle. Online learning can therefore force students into isolation with many either unwilling or unable to reach out for help.
Online learning is largely asynchronous, meaning that the adult learner self-directs their own learning and is the captain of their educational ship. To stay on top of your study, you must be very disciplined in setting yourself a schedule and getting the work you need to get done, done.
One of the biggest challenges facing online learning is the lack of digital literacy in students. To be able to fully engage in an online class or e-learning material, students need to have basic digital literacy skills and understand how to click links, download and submit documents and switch between tabs and open new windows on their web browser. Without these skills, it can be very difficult to fully engage with (and make the most of) the online class or material, which can leave the student feeling overwhelmed and also low in self-esteem.
Nothing disrupts an online lesson more than an audio, video, or connection issue, and these can crop up when engaging with an e-learning resource, as with any online activity.
In the early days of online learning, students were required to download and/or install cumbersome apps or technology that would deliver inconsistent performances. Luckily, now that technology has evolved, online classes can be accessed directly through web pages without the need to install anything. Internet connections around the world have also improved dramatically, and people’s devices have more capabilities than ever before, making technical issues at least less of a problem than they used to be.
There are many reasons to say yes or no to online learning, but one thing is for sure: it’s here to stay. The best advice we can offer is to jump on the train and enjoy the ride because the progress in technological systems and tools for e-learning will soon start to outweigh the negatives of this brave new way we learn.
1: Research and Markets – Online Education Market Report “Online Education Market & Global Forecast, by End User, Learning Mode (Self-Paced, Instructor Led), Technology, Country, Company”.
2: efront learning. (2013). A brief history of elearning (infographic) https://www.efrontlearning.com/blog/2013/08/a-brief-history-of-elearning-infographic.html