E-learning hasn’t lived up to the hype

Interest in e-learning soared in the 1990s, when it was praised as a revolutionary way for students to participate in global communities from kindergarten to higher education. E-learning—educational content provided through emerging technology—promised students quick feedback on papers and course work for substantially lower costs than using books. Companies planned to use it to teach new skills to employees, and adults who wanted to finish their baccalaureate and graduate education could now do so online.

“ It’s a very exciting technology,” says Director of The Learning Alliance and Graduate School of Education Professor Robert Zemsky. “The big boost was really the dot-com boom in the ’90s. This seemed to promise a whole new revenue stream to universities.” But has e-learning really delivered on its promise? As Zemsky argues in a new study, not entirely.

So what went wrong? One factor, says Zemsky, is that e-learning was praised before many people really knew how to deliver it. “[E-learning] got reduced down to simply distance education,” he says. “Distance learning has modest success because it isn’t pushing the envelope in any way, shape or form.” Many educators have used the web only to distribute materials or post PowerPoint slides, and haven’t backed that up with real interaction or meaningful dialogue.

And the theory of “if you build it, they will come,” where schools assumed that students would buy a brand name education (such as NYUonline or Columbia’s Fathom), turned out to be inaccurate. At the six universities and colleges studied, Zemsky found that 80 percent of e-learning students were already enrolled at that school.

Zemsky, a 38-year Penn veteran, found that students still value personal contact, and at its best e-learning was considered a convenience rather than an exciting learning tool. He adds that the assumption that e-learning would force a change in the way educators teach also turned out to be false. “The great majority say, ‘I’m really successful in what I’m doing now. There’s not a big reason to change. You guys haven’t persuaded me. . .that my students are going to learn better or differently or I’m going to teach better or differently.’”

For e-learning to be successful, Zemsky says, there needs to be a combination of “bricks and clicks”— in-classroom sessions as well as online classes. For example, a community college that faced a shortage of classroom space found that for a four-day-a-week course, two of those sessions could be online, therefore doubling the classroom capacity. “There has to be a reason to embrace e-learning,” says Zemsky

Originally published on September 23, 2004