The aim of this blog

This is the first of several blogs that explore the question: is e-learning failing in higher education? (See an earlier blog, Is e-learning failing in higher education?, for the context for this question.)

The first set of blogs will examine the rationale and expectations for e-learning.

Other blogs will examine:

  • what systemic innovation might look like,
  • why there is little systemic innovation, and what needs to be done to change this.

Expectations for e-learning

I think the first thing to examine is whether expectations about e-learning – defined here as the application of information and communications technologies (ICTs), and in particular computers and the Internet, for teaching and learning – are realistic.

This raises further questions:

  • why are we using ICTs for teaching and learning?
  • what are we trying to achieve, and
  • how will we know that we have achieved what we set out to achieve?

First, it should be appreciated that there are many different stakeholders in post-secondary education: learners, instructors, educational support staff such as instructional and web designers, IT support staff, senior managers, government and employers. You can probably think of others, as well, e.g. parents of students. As I am semi-retired, I delude myself into thinking that I am a disinterested taxpayer – which of course is an oxymoron.

Each set of stakeholders brings different expectations about the role and use of technology in teaching and learning, and these different stakeholders will have different values that will influence their evaluation of e-learning’s effectiveness. Nevertheless, it should be possible to collect together the different rationales for e-learning, and examine the extent to which expectations have or have not been met.

Setting goals

Having said that, too often individuals or institutions have launched into e-learning without a clear understanding of what they are hoping to achieve. Therefore a first step for any instructor – or institution considering investment in e-learning – should be to define their expectations and goals, even accepting that these may legitimately change as more experience and knowledge is gained about the potential and limitations of using technology for teaching and learning.

So below I have collected together some of the more common rationales or expectations for e-learning that I have encountered, both in the literature and in discussion with different stakeholder groups. I will then examine each of these separately, trying in particular to show how success or failure in achieving these goals could be measured.

Possible goals for e-learning

1. To increase access to learning opportunities/increase flexibility for students

2. To enhance the general quality of teaching/learning.

3. To develop the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century, and in particular to ensure that learners have the digital literacy skills required in their discipline, profession or career – or, put simply, to get work in the future

4. to meet the learning styles/needs of millenial students

5. to improve the cost-effectiveness of the post-secondary education system

6. to stay at the leading edge of educational technology developments/to digitalise all learning – or put another way, to respond to the technological imperative

7. to de-institutionalise learning/to enable self-managed learning.

8. to embark on a journey of mystery to see where it will take me.

It can be seen that these goals can be expressed in different ways and will appeal differentially to different stakeholder groups. Some may be seen as sub-goals of others.To some extent, in the long run, what really matters is that whoever is using e-learning is clear as to their reasons why and what they are hoping to achieve as a result.

Tony’s goals for e-learning

My rationale for e-learning (in order of priority) would be (5), (3) and (1). However, I think we are failing on (5), doing poorly on (3), and doing quite well on (1). I have weak support for (4) and (7), and don’t agree with (6). I’m too old to be a hippy (and wasn’t one when I was young enough), so I reject (8), although I can see its appeal. Above all, I think (2) drains e-learning of its value (at least in the way I will define the goal). I will give reasons for this ‘ranking’ and ‘assessment’ in subsequent posts that discuss in more detail each rationale or goal.

Your goals for e-learning

I’d like to know if you have other goals for e-learning, and/or what your preference(s) would be, in terms of priority, and how successful e-learning has been so far in meeting your preferred goals. So please post a comment, and identify what kind of stakeholder you are.

Next steps

I will discuss the first goal – increased access/flexibility – in more detail in tomorrow’s posting.


  1. I have a role as a Learning Technologist at the Institute of Education, London so I spend a lot of time trying to convince Higher Education academics about the virtues of all things e-learning. Your list of goals is very useful.

    I have used many of these at various times but the one I use a lot is where I present something as another tool to choose from in their toolkit when they design their course. I guess this is (2) more than anything else, but I don’t talk about improving quality because of the connotation that the quality isn’t good at the moment. It’s worth saying, however, that I think the social, informal learning offered by Web 2.0 can and should improve the learning for everyone. This is my main motivation for what I do.

    Where it is clear, I will talk about cost-effectiveness (5) and flexibility and access (1) as these will always go down well. Tangible benefits like this where are indisputable are the hooks to get people open to your ideas.

    3 and 6 are interesting. (6) never goes down well with sceptical academics and shouldn’t really be used. (3) I definitely agree with and one that I should use more often. It’s also increasingly hard to argue against. What I need is some more facts to back this up or at least some supplementary statements on this (I look forward to your further posts).

    (4) – yes, but I think of it as – “let’s do what they are doing because they are doing it.” This sounds a bit silly but it’s valid. Another way of thinking about it is going into their world and speaking in a language that they understand (the web 2.0 world). I’m not in favour of using facebook or myspace but a comparable social networking facility – we don’t want to invade their private space. I’m not a fan of getting into learning styles because of the annoying “e-learning isn’t my learning style” mantra I often hear. This statement is so wrong on so many levels!

    Self-managed or personal learning (7) is a phrase that is creeping into higher education but it’s often offered within a tightly controlled space which kind of misses the point (I agree with Jay about e-portfolios). I don’t find myself using this much unless it’s clearly what they want to hear. 8 is silly.

  2. If you’d like a tool for setting your goals, you can use this web application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A Vision Wall (inspiring images attached to yor goals) is available too.
    Works also on mobile.

  3. Thanks Tony. A very informative read. Just a thought – I guess another reason for using eLearning and Web 2.0 technologies is to make the learning process more enjoyable and engaging for this generation of students (probably fit into your point 4 above.) I definitely think that making learning fun enhances the learning process.

  4. I focus on the students more than anything else so my goal would be (9), to reach the students’ goals whatever they are. It is completely depend on the situation one is facing. Let me give you an examples, student who is going to take GRE has a goal to maximize his score when other student who is in the course might set his goals to maximize his grades and/or learn as much as he can. There are still so many kinds of these but I think you get my whole idea. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  5. Looking at this it seems that not a lot has changed since 2006 (when I stopped lecturing at MMU) using e-learning as a platform, my feeling at the time was that HE and FE institutions weren’t using the latest in technology, i.e. not the more innovative products available in the charity and business sector even then, and hence why a lot of their efforts were doomed from the start.


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