Did you know that almost everyone who uses a computer has completed some type of e-learning? Perhaps it was called web-based training, or online learning, or computer-based training, but it’s all under the same e-learning umbrella. E-learning can encompass a wide variety of online initiatives. So a good, broad way to think about e-learning is as the use of electronic media (computers, tablets, or phones) to educate or train learners.

This article will focus on e-learning in terms of course development and content authoring, and then explore what it is, why we use it, how it’s evolved, and much more. So if you’re interested in finding out more about e-learning in general, you’ve come to the right place. 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, an e-learning course could be a software simulation that demonstrates the click path through an application. Or, it could be a very interactive course that features role playing and complex decision-making. In this article, we will take a deliberately broad view of e-learning, and appreciate its near-infinite and ever-evolving forms.

What’s the Value of E-Learning?

E-learning offers a lot of value compared to more traditional training options, like facilitated sessions or lectures. 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 one, 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: It’s possible to create, publish, and share a course within a few hours. The software is so easy to use that almost anyone can create engaging courses.

  • reduces costs: All of the above-mentioned factors result in a cost savings for organizations that use e-learning courses to replace some of their traditional instructor-led training.

As the world becomes more connected and globalized, more people have consistent access to the internet, computers, smartphones, and other technological devices. When we provide people with learning opportunities on these devices, they can use them to access timely resources and training while on the job.

The value of e-learning is that it can save time and money. It can often be more efficient to develop one course that can be distributed electronically and consistently to thousands, versus one that’s delivered in person to training groups, where the message, equipment, and other conditions can vary enough to affect the outcome of the course.

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How Has E-Learning Evolved?

The past decade has radically transformed e-learning. In the early days, e-learning courses were typically custom creations, coded by programmers and developers who used highly specialized tools and code to create these courses. In those days, it could easily require an entire team to create a simple, linear e-learning course. Very few people had the skills or knowledge to do so on their own.

Now, with advances in technology, creating e-learning is much more accessible. The course development tools have advanced to a point where just about anyone can create an e-learning course, without any programming or coding knowledge.

Changes in technology have also impacted the types of hardware tools we use. We’ve gone from using desktop computers exclusively to a mix of desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Naturally, e-learning has followed suit to span the array of devices we use. In fact, e-learning developed specifically for mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, is sometimes referred to as as “m-learning,” or mobile learning.

The learner’s experience of accessing e-learning has also evolved. It wasn’t so long ago that learners had to first add custom applications and/or download players before they could view course content. This setup often took time and was fraught with challenges for the learner—even before the course started.

Then, in the late nineties, Adobe Flash became the standard for e-learning, which made it really simple to view and share e-learning content. For nearly a decade, a majority of browsers came with Flash, so learners could play courses through the Flash player in their browser. However, now that many mobile devices and tablets are not Flash compatible, many developers are shifting to HTML5 to publish and share e-learning courses.

What Software Is Used to Create E-Learning?

In the early days of e-learning, only programmers and coders had the complex programming skills to create e-learning courses. Then came applications like Authorware, which still required programming, and Microsoft PowerPoint, which came into play in the late 1980s. PowerPoint quickly became the go-to tool for designing slide-based e-learning courses for much of the 1990s.

A huge leap forward for e-learning development occurred with the advent of PowerPoint-to-Flash tools. With that advancement, developers could convert PowerPoint courses, which were rarely interactive, to Flash, without needing to do any programming. Developers could also use form-based tools like Articulate Engage to push the creative envelope of their content beyond what they could do in PowerPoint.

The new millennium saw even more advancements as new tools were introduced. With these, the average layperson was better equipped to design and build their own e-learning courses. For example, Articulate Storyline offers the ease and familiarity of PowerPoint, yet has the power to build complex interactions, all without the developer writing a line of code.

Today’s e-learning authoring tools are typically broken down into two categories: form-based and free-form development.

Form-based authoring tools:
Using a form-based application means certain aspects of the e-learning course are prebuilt. You simply need to add in the proper text, images, and colors. With different combinations of these, you can vary the look of the interactions created from the same form.

Form-based tools are great for people who want to develop content quickly. They also work well for people who are less technical, or who are newer to e-learning and want less of a learning curve. Articulate Engage (part of the Articulate Studio suite) is a perfect example of a form-based tool. The application comes with 20 prebuilt interactions, from a bulletin board to a circle diagram to a pyramid interaction. All you do is use the form-based tool to add your own information. Here are some examples of form-based e-learning activities created using Articulate Engage ’13:

Form-based authoring offers you simplicity at the expense of some custom programming options. As such, the constraints of the form become evident when you try to do more than what the form is designed to do. It’s a trade-off that most people accept for the gains in authoring speed and ease.

Free-form authoring tools:
While form-based tools offer prebuilt key functionalities, free-form software does just the opposite. A free-form tool generally starts you out with a blank slide, and you then build the entire functionality and design for yourself. This gives you more options for customizing the look, and is better suited to someone who is comfortable with the technology. Free-form applications are often used to create highly customized, complex e-learning modules.

Here are examples of free-form e-learning content created using Articulate Storyline:

The trade-off with free-form authoring is that you have to make every little decision, which requires more planning. For example, say you wanted to create a tabs interaction. If you used the form-based tool in Engage, you’d be finished in minutes. If you wanted to use a free-form tool, you’d need more time to determine the screen layout, colors, interactive elements, and logic of how the tabs work.

In short, free-form gives you more power and more options, but it also requires more skill and time.

So when you’re looking at authoring tools, always start by determining the underlying production process. Is it form-based or free-form? If you’re interested in finding out more, check out this list of questions to consider when choosing an authoring tool.

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 are not tracked or scored for completion. 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). Certain standards are in place to report the information to the LMS, including AICC, SCORM, and, more recently, Tin Can.

Here are a few important terms to understand related to the distribution of e-learning:

  • LMS: LMS stands for Learning Management System and refers to software used to administer, track, report, and document the delivery of your e-learning courses.

  • SCORM: A Shareable Content Object Reference Model is a collection of specifications and standards for e-learning, which allows communication between the e-learning content and the LMS. There are several versions of SCORM.

  • AICC: The Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee is a set of specifications designed so learning technology vendors can spread their costs across multiple markets.

  • Tin Can: Tin Can API (Application Programming Interface) is a new specification for e-learning, which is not tied to an LMS and collects data about a person’s learning experiences across various devices. These devices are able to communicate with each other using this new spec.

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 good tools; and 2) solid instructional design.


Good form-based or free-form tools 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 easier the programming, the less time you have to 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 and instructional experiences that maximize learning and present knowledge and content in the most effective, efficient way.

Consider reading about some instructional design basics for e-learning to help you create courses that are instructionally sound with solid learning objectives. You can have the most fabulous-looking course in the world, but if there isn’t good, quality content within the course, it’s not going to have the impact you desire.

The key thing to remember about e-learning, and specifically e-learning course development, is that it is a constantly-evolving field. From the tools you use to create it, to the applications learners use to view it, the technology behind creating and sharing e-learning changes daily. The tools you have will continue to improve; however, your focus should remain on using those tools to create the best e-learning possible.  

In its relatively short history, e-learning has come so far, and offers immeasurable opportunity to help people learn better. I hope this overview of e-learning was useful, and inspires you to push your own creative envelope beyond slide-based or click-next courses.

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Peter Rushton