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What is eLearning?

You might have heard of the term 'eLearning' or 'microlearning' being thrown around lately, but what is it really? Whether you're new to #OnlineTraining or an online training veteran, we've put together this guide to help you know everything you need to get started using eLearning!

30 Sep 2020 by Rocco Brudno

Your business and team push for a competitive advantage to stay ahead and remain relevant to your customers and industry. But are you leveraging every tool at your disposal to do so?

We’re sure you might have heard of, or have been wondering what is eLearning. But as experts in that industry, we also know there’s a lot of misinformation to sift through to find an answer.

It can be difficult to learn what information is correct when finding a solution for your training needs. So we made this guide to empower you with the knowledge of what is eLearning, how to use it, and what the benefits are for your business and team.

What is eLearning?

As we said above, it’s difficult to find a singular (and factual) piece of information on what is eLearning. But a great definition we found to be true comes from the Association for Talent Development.

“eLearning is a structured course or learning experience delivered electronically; it can also include performance support content. Many different elements can make up a learning program, such as live or pre-recorded lecture content, video, quizzes, simulations, games, activities, and other interactive elements.” — ATD

The two key elements to take from that are:

  • eLearning is a learning experience provided online (electronically felt a little broad).

  • eLearning can incorporate a variety of media types—but all of them are accessed, rather than administered.


That second definition is a key difference between eLearning and online training. With eLearning, much of the “learning” is accessed by a learner through a platform or space the eLearning content is found. Think of collegiate universities that offer free online courses that can be accessed and completed by a learner without instructor input.

Online training is knowledge delivered online that’s a mix of accessible media and administered content (training delivered in real-time). A great example of this is to take an online course via Zoom call and then being sent a quiz based on the course. There’s always a “learner” receiving the training and a “trainer” or “admin” that’s delivering and reviewing it.

This history of eLearning

The real history of eLearning doesn’t begin until 1999 when U.S. President Bill Clinton signed executive order 13111. This order created and established a committee to explore and define learning technologies and standards, know as the Advisory Committee on Federal Training Technology.

During its research, the committee found and established definitions for eLearning as well as SCORM (shareable content object reference model). SCORM became the standard by which eLearning content was to be created and used. Many eLearning models still rely on SCORM to operate and deliver learning experiences.

Alongside the committee, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL), became the administrator of SCORM. As of the early 2000s, ADL supervises conformance requirements for SCORM learning content.

ADL also ensures eLearning platforms that use SCORM provide a consistently satisfactory level of performance with learning content—though not all platforms today use SCORM, thus escaping the conformance standards.

How has eLearning evolved?

A lot has changed in the two decades eLearning has existed—mostly in the last five years. This is because, unlike other software industries, eLearning has only recently gained attention, unlike website development or general content creation.

Thankfully for us, ATD published a study reviewing the average time it took to create a single 1hr unit of competency for eLearning. The study reviews times from 2003, 2009, and 2017. There are more details on each level, but we'll only cover the most important 3. The study found that:

Traditional learning

This format took 45 hours for a 1 hour unit of competency. In 2009, this jumped to 114 hours. And by 2017, it dropped to 38 hours. Traditional learning was and still is common with most education organizations and businesses. This because it’s been around the longest and still is cost-effective as far as in-person learning goes. Think of a classroom environment with an instructor or trainer sharing knowledge on a topic with others in the room.

Level 1 eLearning (passive)

This format took 70 hours for a 1 hour unit of competency. 2009 only slightly jumped, up to 94.5 hours. But by 2017, this halved to 42 hours. This is a very basic type of learning that’s still popular today. Think of PDF-style information delivered with clickable links to more resources.

Level 4 (real-time/interactive)

The most complex eLearning took 800 hours to create a 1 hour unit of competency. In 2009, it took 1346 hours! And for the drumroll, in 2017, the time dropped to 142 hours. Why the crazy amount of time for the first two? Level 4 is a type of eLearning unit that’s responsive and dynamic to a learner’s journey. Think of a multiple-choice quiz that changes question sets based on how a learner is doing.

It’s pretty striking to see the drop in creation time for eLearning content by 2017, especially for Level 4. That’s partly because technology began to rapidly evolve only in the past few years. It’s also interesting to note the increase in time during 2009—we think this is due to the first real set of content software improvements that also created new skill gaps learning designs had to adapt to before gaining proficiency.

Other shifts in software that helped evolved eLearning

We had the pleasure to sit down and chat with one of our top industry experts on eLearning to hear what changes they’ve experienced. Our CPO and Co-Founder Jude told us that companies like Apple and Amazon paved the way for eLearning technologies growth.

Apple’s App Store enabled eLearning developers like Jude to create rich and engaging content that could be used to build:

  • Quizzes and exams that could be created and delivered in-app
  • Interactive content that was fast and easy to make
  • Mobile-friendly content that was touch-responsive

These all made eLearning more accessible, engaging, and ultimately more efficient to create. The App Store made a huge impact on how web developers would design for small screens and eventually mobile-responsive web pages. Jude added that:

“It [the App Store] really opened people’s eyes up to the importance of mobile apps. It was a combination of what small computers could do, because everything was becoming more powerful and because you could just do larger file transfers. And with those transfers, everything became easier and faster” —Jude Novak.

We all know how Apple molded the mobile landscape for apps (you may even be reading this article on your phone). Jude adds that Amazon’s AWS expanded the ability to host and accelerate web development through its cloud servers.

Jude finished by adding that Moore’s Law had a huge impact on the state of eLearning’s evolution. With significantly improved processing power, hardware was able to expand eLearning development at a faster pace while reducing the time need to create.

The evolution of the eLearning authoring tool

Another technology that is arguably the most important is the authoring tool. An eLearning authoring tool allows anyone to create eLearning content with little to no learning design experience. This is because eLearning authoring tools were designed to leverage proven eLearning templates that can be easily filled out to create a complete learning experience.

One of the first versions of an authoring tool was known as RoboDemo, a product of eHelp that featured basic flash tools and video recording. eHelp was acquired by Macromedia in 2003, and then in 2005, Adobe acquired Macromedia. Adobe then made the authoring tool into what is known today as Adobe Captivate. Each time the torch was passed, better authoring tool features were born, eventually removing the need for Flash altogether. Now many learning design experts and novices can leverage all-in-one LMS’ (learning management systems) and rapidly create eLearning content with ease.

Jude and our CEO/fellow Co-Founder Ryan discussed their own experience in the industry in episode 1 of The CoLab Podcast. Give it a listen if you want to hear:

  • How expensive and difficult it was to create eLearning over the years
  • Expert advice on how to share knowledge with your team.

The CoLab Podcast—Expert advice on how to share know with your team and business

What is eLearning used for today?

eLearning has two very distinct use cases. The first is academic eLearning such as k-12 learning programs and universities that offering online courses. The second is corporate eLearning, which has been the main driver of growth in recent years. While many companies are still opting for online training platforms, corporate eLearning still has some uses. Lastly, we have blended learning, which is a mix of formal in-person learning and eLearning delivered before and after to increase knowledge retention.

Academic eLearning

This is one of the more common uses when people think of eLearning. Platforms like Canvas and Blackboard were built to create academic content and create a space for learners to access it. It’s a very 1-dimensional form of eLearning with some interaction on the teacher-side for grading and responses to discussion boards. The content is typically text, image, or video media that the learner consumes and then responds to for evaluation.

Corporate eLearning

Corporate eLearning is sometimes confused with online training. The best difference and example we can give is companies like IBM or HubSpot that offer eLearning courses on their products. Another great example is corporate team leaders providing eLearning content to new hires on communication policies.

Corporate eLearning has many of the same practices as academic, but with more business-oriented purposes. Online training is more interactive from the trainer’s side and creates a more effective approach for businesses wanting to share knowledge at scale.

Blended learning

Blended learning is a hybrid of in-person learning bolstered with online content to enhance the experience. The Online Learning Consortium conducted a study with Babson Research Group to define blended learning as “instruction that contains an average of 30 percent to 79 percent online content.” What is eLearning doing with Blended learning? Blended learning is a combination of in-person and eLearning, hybridizing the best of both. Blended learning is most effective when some knowledge can be shared online but some parts still require in-person learning.

Benefits of eLearning

eLearning offers hundreds of great benefits that can help upskill and grow your team and business. Below are three proven benefits our customers have seen when implementing eLearning into their training programs.

Benefits to business

We wanted to start with some stats on how eLearning can directly impact your business. This article on TechJury found that:

  • A survey of 2,500 companies concluded that those with “comprehensive training programs” have 218% higher revenue per employee and 24% higher profit margins.
  • IBM saved approximately $200 million after switching to e-learning as their main form of employee training.
  • E-learning increases employee retention rates by 25% to 60%.
  • Corporate e-learning takes 40% to 60% less time to complete when compared to traditional learning.

eLearning can be implemented in nearly any use case. This is because the content is so much more fluid than rigid traditional learning methods. Below we’ve included some links to how you can understand the eLearning benefits for your business and team as well.

Knowledge accessibility

eLearning content can make sharing knowledge resources easier and increase accessibility. This means rather than directly sending learning to someone, you can share access to a knowledge resource space. That way, when the knowledge is needed, it can be pulled up in a moment, making learning content more effective and engaging.

💡 Pro Tip: Learning content that’s accessible has been proven to increase knowledge retention. This is because contextually relevant eLearning that’s easy to find when needed bridges knowledge gaps for learners.

The ROI of corporate eLearning

Most eLearning programs are implemented because of the attractive reduction in cost to teach employees valuable skills. By calculating your eLearning ROI, you can understand the savings using eLearning will create for your business.

💡 Pro Tip: Our team did the work to make it easy for you to see the value of eLearning with some helpful stats tied to switching from manual to eLearning instruction. And our experts are always available to help you find additional benefits on how you can leverage eLearning for your team.

We hope this guide helps you understand what is eLearning and how it can be beneficial to your business. There’s a lot of ways this form of training content can be effective in scaling team and business growth. To learn how you can get started leveraging this technology, chat with us! Our team of experts work with all of our customers to find the best solution for their needs.

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What is eLearning?

You might have heard of the term 'eLearning' or 'microlearning' being thrown around lately, but what is it really? Whether you're new to #OnlineTraining or an online training veteran, we've put together this guide to help you know everything you need to get started using eLearning!

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