What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique – if anything?

E-learning is a convenient term to cover a range of uses of technology for teaching and learning. However, some argue that ‘e-learning’ is either too general to be useful, or that all teaching now depends to some extent on the use of technology, so we should drop the ‘e-‘ and just focus on learning.

I don’t quite agree with either of those positions, but I do agree we need a clear definition. So here’s mine:

all computer and Internet-based activities that support teaching and learning – both on-campus and at a distance

Note that this includes administrative as well as academic uses of information and communication technologies that support learning, such as software that provides links between student data bases and teaching, for example, class lists, e-mail addresses, etc.

Also, e-learning comes in different forms, ranging from classroom aids to fully online learning.

With classroom aids, the teacher controls the computer and the Web is used to supplement lectures or classroom teaching. Students may be given supplementary work to do online after class.

With computer labs or lap-top programs, students have access to a computer, but still within a classroom setting. The use of computing is still time and place dependent.

In mixed mode, classroom time is reduced but not eliminated. This can take various forms, from dropping to three class times a week to one, with the rest being done online, to face-to-face summer semesters on campus, with online teaching preceding and/or following. It might also include lab or practical work on campus at weekends or evenings, with the rest being done online (sometimes also called ‘flexible learning’.

Finally, there is fully online, where students never come to campus for a particular course or program. This is a form of distance education.

Thus e-learning can be seen as a continuum, as described in the graphic above.

It is very important that there is clarity about what kind of e-learning is being discussed, especially when writing research papers. More importantly, every teacher now needs to decide where on the continuum their course or program should be.

How do you decide this? It will depend on three main factors:

  • what kind of students are you trying to reach – e.g. full-time straight from high school, part-time campus-based, or adults in the workforce. The technology now allows us to reach all these target groups, but their needs are different, particularly in terms of how much face-to-face teaching they need. Also, how many students are you trying to reach – if you are trying to reach all the electrical apprentices in the country, you can afford to develop high-cost simulations, for instance;
  • the nature of the subject matter you are teaching, and the type of learning outcomes you are trying to achieve: how much practical work, what skills or competencies are you trying to teach? We now know that most subjects can be taught fully online with enough time and money, but some things still are quicker and easier to do face-to-face;
  • what technology and technological support can you use? If you are in a developing country where less than 2% have access to the Internet at home, or institutional access to the Internet costs $10,000 a month for 2 megs/sec access (as in Belize), then fully online learning is not going to work. If you are in the USA and want to develop simulations, do you have access to multimedia designers with experience in designing simulations?

You may be able to answer these questions yourself, but in most cases, it will be enormously helpful if you have access to an instructional designer with training and experience both in educational design and the use of technology for teaching.

For more on this, see Teaching in a Digital Age, particularly Chapter 9

If you have a different definition or view on e-learning, let me know in the comments.


  1. I agree basicaly on your e-learning definition ,especially “teaching and learning” that I mean refflective. Dispite it, i think there are another considerations. Different background on each student could add complexity. At work appears important differences between the workers, not only on the reasons and motivations but on skills, gifts and opportunities. But the main inequality could be cultural. What to do when students have different cosmogonies? What about on the case of students with first wave paradigms, others on industrial, and others on the knowledge wave? It’s common in big countries or with more inequalyties. In those cases, what could be the better practice? . If we speak about Knowledge society we must adopt its values and principles?. What happen elearning about it? (excuse my poor english and so many asks).

  2. Thanks for your comments, Raul.

    I agree that the characteristics of the learner are an important consideration in designing e-learning. Good design will take account of student characteristics, and should enable learners to learn in different ways.

    Also, the issue of access to technology is also critical. e-Learning is not possible where students have poor or no access to technology, such as computers, or where the cost of Internet services is high.

    However, there is a strong relationship between Internet access, the knowledge society, and e-learning. This is why government policies that facilitate the development of Internet-based services are critical, if knowledge-based jobs and businesses are to be developed.


  3. […] The third generation version emphasises pedagogical approaches, and a new vocabulary has appeared. Concepts like “Problem-Based Distant Learning” (PBDL), “Computer Supported Collaborative Learning” (CSCL), Virtual Community of Practice an others have made online pedagogy almost impenetrable to the non-initiated. Many of these concepts can be summarised under “E-learning”. According to the old “e-guru” Dr Tony Bates, e-learning is “all computer and Internet-based activities that support teaching and learning – both on-campus and at a distance. […]

  4. I am more clarified now on the nature of distance education and e-learning with the manner on how you explain things, thanks!

  5. That’s a great definition and article Tony. I was looking into this topic because I’m developing my own online course for 2020 (a free e-learning development course). I hope to enlist some eager educators throughout Canada (I’m based in Toronto). It’s interesting too to consider admin vs. academic aspects of the IT involved. Cheers!


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