What Is E-Learning?

Have you ever watched a YouTube tutorial or signed up for an online course? If so, then you've experienced e-learning. The term “e-learning” might sound intimidating, but it's just a fancy way of talking about the use of electronic devices (computers, tablets, or phones) for educational purposes. 

In this article, we'll explore a more detailed definition of what it is, why it’s valuable, and more. Sound good? Read on!

How Do We Define E-Learning?

Many people would recognize a basic e-learning course as a slide-based online activity that contains simple navigation buttons (such as Next and Back) and incorporates quizzes with true/false or multiple-choice questions.

But not all e-learning courses share the same fingerprint. For example, it could be an inherently responsive web-based course that allows learners to have a great learning experience no matter what device they’re using to view their course. Or maybe it’s a software simulation that demonstrates the click-path through an application. Or an interactive course that features role-playing and complex decision-making.

In this article we’ll take a deliberately broad view of e-learning, and appreciate its near-infinite and ever-evolving forms.

Why Is E-Learning Valuable?

E-learning offers many benefits that more traditional training options, such as facilitated sessions or lectures, don’t provide. For example, e-learning ...

  • Can be either an asynchronous or synchronous activity: Traditionally, e-learning has been asynchronous, which means there is no predetermined time for the learning to take place. Everyone can go at their own pace, and take their time to learn what they need to know, when they need to know it. However, more synchronous e-learning is now being offered through web conferencing and chat options. The great thing about e-learning is it gives you the option to do either or both.
  • Has a global reach: E-learning can simply be placed online and easily accessed by people around the world. There is no need for expensive travel or meetings across multiple time zones.
  • Spans multiple devices/mobile: Online courses can work on computers as well as on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. This means e-learning courses can literally be in the hands of the people who need them at all times.
  • Is just-in-time/needs-based: E-learning authoring software is so easy to use that anyone can create, publish, and share a course within a few hours, allowing you to provide people with resources and training they can access right when they need it.
  • Is more efficient: With e-learning, you can develop a course that can be distributed electronically to thousands instead of having to organize in-person training sessions whenever people need to be brought up to speed.
  • Reduces costs: All of the abovementioned factors result in a cost savings for organizations that use e-learning courses to replace some of their traditional instructor-led training.
  • Allows for consistent quality and content: When you develop an e-learning course, you can deliver the same message to all learners consistently. In classroom training, the message, equipment, and other conditions can vary widely from one session to the next, which can affect the outcome of the course.

And that’s just the beginning! As you can see, e-learning can be an extremely valuable asset to your organization.

How Do You Create E-Learning Courses?

In the early days, e-learning courses were typically custom creations, coded by programmers and developers using highly specialized apps. In those days, it could easily require an entire team to create a simple, linear e-learning course.

E-learning design is now much more accessible. Today’s course development apps, also called authoring tools or authoring apps, are so advanced that anyone can create e-learning courses—without any programming or coding knowledge.

There are many different types of authoring apps out there today, each with their own set of capabilities. Some apps, like Rise 360, have been specifically engineered to create e-learning courses that dynamically adapt to any screen size (also known as responsive e-learning courses). Other apps, like Storyline 360, are designed to create highly interactive slide-based courses. And of course there are also PowerPoint add-ons like Studio 360, which make turning PowerPoint presentations into e-learning courses a snap.

Each app has a unique feature set, making it particularly well suited for a specific type of project. When you’re trying to decide which authoring app to use, always start by looking at your project requirements and objectives.

If you’re having trouble figuring out which app is right for your project, here are a few articles that could help you decide:

How Is E-Learning Shared?

Once you’ve created an e-learning course, you need to distribute it to learners. There are many ways to do this, and—like everything else related to e-learning—those ways are constantly evolving and improving. Here, I’d like to look at two ways to share content: informal distribution and formal distribution.

Informal Distribution

Informal distribution of e-learning content typically means users are trusted to view the e-learning course, and their participation isn’t tracked or scored. One way to informally share an e-learning course is to put it on a web server, then send participants the link and have them view the course. You don’t really have a systematic way of knowing whether learners have completed the course, but sometimes that’s not necessary.

Formal Distribution

Sharing an e-learning course formally means there’s a need to track and record learner results. Most organizations that have a need for formal distribution of e-learning have specific systems and standards in place for this.

Tracking is usually done in what is called a Learning Management System (LMS). An LMS allows you to administer, track, report, and document the delivery of your e-learning courses. Get up to speed on LMSs here.

Certain standards are in place to report the information to the LMS, including AICC, SCORMcmi5, and xAPI (Tin Can API). For a short overview of these norms, hop on over to this article.

Starting to feel overwhelmed by all the acronyms? Make sure to bookmark the E-Learning ABCs so you can refer back to the definitions of the most commonly used e-learning terms at any time.

What Makes an E-Learning Project Successful?

Many factors contribute to a successful e-learning program, but the top two are:

  1. A production process that uses the right apps
  2. Solid instructional design

Let’s take a closer look at these two essential elements.


Powerful apps let you create the functionality and interactivity that you want for your learners. They help you make e-learning that looks and works great, which goes a long way toward a successful e-learning course.

The more user-friendly the app, the less time you’ll spend on technical issues. This frees you up to commit to the instructional design to craft a great learning experience.

Instructional Design

One way organizations measure the success of an e-learning project is by how much the learner’s knowledge and skills have improved after they’ve taken the course. To provide your learners with the best odds, you should have content that is designed in an instructionally sound manner. Instructional design is all about creating educational experiences that maximize learning and present content in the most effective way.

If you’re new to instructional design, I recommend reading up on the basics to help you create instructionally sound courses with solid learning objectives. You can have the most fabulous-looking course in the world, but if the content quality isn’t top-notch, it won’t have the impact you desire.

The Bottom Line

E-learning course development is constantly evolving. Authoring apps will continue to improve; however, your focus should remain on using those apps to create the best e-learning possible.

In its relatively short history, e-learning has come a long way, and offers immeasurable opportunities to help people learn better. I hope this overview of e-learning inspires you to push yourself to create engaging courses that will delight your learners. If you want to learn more, you should check out:

This article is part of our E-Learning 101 e-mail course, a series of expertly curated articles that’ll help you get started with e-learning—delivered right to your inbox. You’re only a click away from becoming an e-learning pro! Sign up here to enroll.

Peter Rushton
janice rathert