This is the last in a series of ten blogs on the topic: ‘Is e-learning failing in higher education?’ My blogs on this topic were prompted by my dissatisfaction with the Canadian Council on Learning’s report on ‘The State of e-Learning in Canada.’ (Click here to see my review of their report.)

I suggested that in order to assess the success or otherwise of e-learning, we should lay out our expectations, then check the current status against each expectation. This resulted in the following previous blogs:

In this last blog on this topic, I will try to summarise the main points of my argument, the gist of which is that e-learning has been successful in some ways, but not sufficiently to lead to the changes needed on the higher education system. Overall, it gets a fail grade.

The purpose of the exercise

Basically, I’ve been trying to do the job that the Canadian Council on Learning ducked in its report: to examine why, despite widespread adoption of information and communications technologies, there has been no systemic change in our post-secondary institutions, what could be done to encourage systemic innovation and change, and how to achieve measurable benefits from e-learning through systemic change.

Why are we doing it?

In the blogs, I set out a number of goals or rationales for using technology for teaching and learning in post-secondary education. I argued that although different stakeholders will have different goals and priorities, no-one should embark on e-learning without being clear about why they are doing it, and then being clear about what would count as success, and how they would know it was a success or otherwise. Far too often, though, instructors and institutions drift into e-learning without any clear goals or strategies for success. The up-front investment, in both money and time, is too great for this to be a casual exercise.

Priorities for e-learning

I ranked my priorities for e-learning as following:

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

I argued that the cost-effectiveness of the system must be improved. This is because the changing needs of a rapidly growing knowledge-based economy has required (or resulted in) a massive expansion of post-secondary education systems in economically advanced countries. Consequently, the conflicting pressures for increased access, higher quality, and controlling costs require us to consider radical changes to the way post-secondary education is provided.

The increased use of technology offers one possibility to improve cost-effectiveness, but not on its own. It must be accompanied by major structural changes in both the design and delivery of teaching, and the re-organization of the institution.

However, I also argued that currently, we are failing to use e-learning to improve the cost-effectiveness of the system. Currently we are merely adding cost to the system, without any clear, measurable benefits. This is because there are deeply embedded structural barriers, and a complete lack of incentive, to improving the cost-effectiveness of higher education. So it is not so much that e-learning has failed higher education on this rationale, but more that those within the system neither accept the need for radical change, nor see technology as an essential component of such change.

Thus the rationale for using e-learning to improve the cost-effectiveness of the post-secondary education system is unlikely to be successfully achieved until the system is nearing collapse, or until some remarkable leadership emerges at the highest political level. So it might be more accurate to say that on this rationale or goal, the higher education system is failing to use e-learning to its full potential, rather than e-learning is failing in higher education. So: an F grade on this goal.

2. To develop the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century

My second priority for e-learning focuses on ensuring that learners have the skills such as digital literacy, initiative, flexibility, problem solving and independent learning, needed in their discipline, profession or career in the 21st century. This is an easier ‘sell’ to those working within the system than the first priority. Most academics are aware of the increasing importance of digital technology within their subject discipline. Information technology is no longer just a useful tool that supports university and college administration and to a lesser extent teaching and learning; rather it is now an integral and essential component of almost all core higher education activities, and as such needs to be used, managed and organised accordingly.

However, I also pointed out that using technology for teaching is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for developing the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. It has to be accompanied by curriculum reform (the content), by changes in teaching methods that facilitate the development of 21st century skills, and by changes in assessment that focuses on measuring such skills. More and more instructors are successfully working towards embedding digital literacy skills within their teaching, but there is still too little focus on the broader 21st century skills that teaching with technology can facilitate.

Thus while I would not say e-learning is entirely failing on this goal, many instructors and institutions still have a long way to go before we can start counting this goal as being universally achieved. So: a C- on this goal.

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

There is strong evidence that e-learning is partially succeeding in this goal. We have seen that enrolment in online courses is increasing far more rapidly than enrolment in campus-based courses, and there are indications that demand for online learning far exceeds the supply, at least in North America. There is also evidence that the trend towards more online learning will intensify over the next five years. (See Allen and Seaman, 2008; Ambient Insight Research, 2009)

The reason for this has as much to do with the changing nature of the student demographic in North America as it has to do with the greater effectiveness of online learning (although there is some evidence for this as well – see Means et al, 2009). Because of increases in tuition fees (inevitable given the increased access to higher education and reluctance to increase taxes to pay for this), more and more students are working at least part-time to pay for their initial undergraduate and graduate education. Furthermore, because of the demands of knowledge-based occupations such as health, telecommunications and computer software engineering, there is increasing demand from lifelong learners to return for post-graduate studies and continuing education. Thus more and more students are combining work, family and study. Online learning provides the flexibility that such students need.

Note though that this is primarily a phenomenon of economically advanced countries. E-learning does nothing to reduce the digital divide. If anything it exacerbates it. Thus e-learning may be increasing for on-campus  students who are already accepted for higher education within developing countries, and where the institution can cover the costs of on-campus access to computers and Internet infrastructure, but it is still difficult or impossible for the vast majority of those excluded from formal education to access online opportunities. Either the technology access is unavailable or prohibitively expensive, in such countries. Even where technology is available on campuses in many developing countries, the applications of e-learning are limited to supporting a transmissive model of classroom teaching.

Yet e-learning is indeed essential for such countries if they are to develop better paying jobs, indigenous businesses, and to achieve the globalization benefits of the Internet. Only in this way can such countries break free of the tyranny of single crop economies, lowest cost labour, and dependency on foreign investment.

So I would give a B or B+ for most economically advanced countries on this goal, and a C- or worse for developing countries, although some institutions in countries such as South Africa, India, China and Mexico would definitely get a B for effort.

4. Enhancing the quality of learning

In a comment to my original blog, Ros Woodhouse defined quality as ‘teaching that facilitates deep and transformative learning.’ This is a definition I like very much.

These uses of technology to enhance quality include:

  • course outlines, lecture notes, clickers, lecture capture, links to external resources
  • e-mail contact with students, online discussions, assessment questions, collaborative project-work
  • usually, but not always, learning management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle to organise the online learning materials
  • no reduction in regular (face-to-face) class time.

My belief is that this is still the most prevalent use of information and communications technology in post-secondary education, although fully online courses continue to expand rapidly, and hybrid courses continue to expand more slowly.

However, I do not consider using technology to enhance classroom teaching as an appropriate goal for e-learning. You cannot justify the high investment in technology if it is merely added on as an enhancement to what we already do. We are merely increasing costs without any measurable benefits. This use of technology does not address the need to change a teaching model that poorly serves mass higher education. Nor does it make the best use of technology in terms of fully exploiting the educational ‘affordances’ that technology can offer. We are using a donkey to pull a rocket in this way. Where we use technology only for this purpose, I would give it a D: maybe some improvement in quality, but not easy to identify or measure, and maybe just as achievable without the extra cost of technology.

5. Serving the needs of millennials

This rationale or goal suggests that millennial students will learn better through e-learning because it fits their experience and ways of behaving. it is important for instructors to take into account the needs of all learners they are dealing with. Young people see technology much the same way they see air and water – part of everyday life. It is natural then that they will see technology as a ‘normal’ component of teaching and learning.

However, there is a danger in stereotyping. Not all ‘millennials’ behave the same way or have a total immersion in technology. Nor are all students these days millennials. An increasing number of students are ‘pre-millennial’, being older and returning to study or entering post-secondary education later in life. Lastly, there are some inherent requirements in education – such as a disciplined approach to study, critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, for example – that cannot or should not be abandoned because they do not fit a particular student’s preferred learning style.

All our students should be engaged and challenged, stimulated by learning, and find the joy and excitement of discovery, not just millennials.  Intelligent use of technology can help, certainly, but it is not sufficient on its own; it needs to be harnessed to effective teaching strategies, such as collaborative learning, problem- and project-based teaching, and enabling students to take responsibility for their own learning.

However, in terms of using technology to engage our students, there is continuing evidence that students think instructors are not doing well with technology. For instance, a recent report (CDW-G, 2009) found that:

  • Students rate faculty lack of tech knowledge as the biggest obstacle to classroom technology integration and see it as a growing problem
  • Just 32% of students and 22% of faculty strongly agree that their college/university is preparing students to successfully use technology when they enter the workforce.

It is not so much a fact then that we are not serving millennials well in our use of technology – we are failing all our students.


This is not a good score card: out of five goals for e-learning, we have three fail grades, one C- (for developing 21st century skills and competences), and one B (for increasing flexible access). As they say, could do much better.

This is probably an overly pessimistic rating. There are many individual instructors and institutions doing  a much better job. We need much better data to be confident in any rating of the success of e-learning. What though is clearly lacking is ambition, imagination and a will for radical change across the system as a whole.

So some questions for the readers of this blog:

  1. Do you agree with this overall rating? If not, why not?
  2. Have I set the standard too high?
  3. Do I have the right goals or criteria against which e-learning should be judged?
  4. Lastly, if you do agree with the ratings, what should be done to improve them?

Over to you!


Allen, I. E. and Seaman, J. (2008) Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 Needham MA: Sloan Consortium

Ambient Insight Research (2009) US Self-paced e-Learning Market Monroe WA: Ambient Insight Research

CDW-G (2009) The 2009 21st-Century Campus Report: Defining the Vision Vernon Hills IL: CDW-G

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education


  1. Great summary, Tony. A few additional thoughts:

    1. on the use of technology to lower costs…I think this is happening at more institutions than it may seem. For example, we hear frequently about increased class sizes where technology is being used to help provide more student-to-student interactions. The cost savings are hidden because they are used to offset lower government funding or to reassign faculty time to more prestigious research activities.

    Unfortunately, the cost savings are not often thoughtfully developed as part of a larger strategy, nor are they always accompanied by changes in instructional design to insure learning quality is maintained (let alone enhanced…).

    2. I appreciate your argument that our use of technology in teaching is not doing a good job of introducing our students to the knowledge work habits they will need in their careers. The best faculty work that underlies the productive changes in course design and technology use could serve as a model to students about the opportunities and decisions they will encounter in the workplace or as concerned citizens, but for this to happen we would have to encourage faculty to share the process by which they arrived at the new course activities, including the source of the ideas, how they will be evaluated, how the risks in the change process have been identified and will be managed, etc. We have a project starting up in the U.S. which I hope will make some progress on this, and have been in conversation with interested Canadian institutions.

    5. re students views of technology use differing from faculty views: You might be interested in recent data providing support for this gap –

    Lopes, V. (2008) Course Management Systems in Campus Based Learning, Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education Professional File, No. 29, December 2008.

    This study of community college students and faculty revealed significant differences between student and faculty perceptions of the use and value of a course management system (as used in their institution).

  2. Excellent post. I greatly valued the insights.

    My frustration with e-learning is that, in many instances, it has only changed the way you access classroom content. The bullet points under “4. Enhancing the quality of learning” only really seem to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. A teacher posts videos of their lecture, students can communicate online, grades and other administrative tasks are streamlined, class notes are posted on moodle, etc. I think these are important tasks, but I don’t think these enhance the quality of the education. They only enhance the access to this education. The lecture could be dry and boring. The online notes could be scattered and irrelevant. The collaborative assignments could be unconnected to cognitive development. Thus, the technology is only a new channel for old methodologies. It doesn’t improve the quality of the content. It only improves the access to the content.

    One powerful use of technology is its scalability. You can disseminate one good teacher’s classroom to an infinite number of users. Instead of a good teacher having an impact on the number of students who can fit in the room, the teacher can impact anyone who has an internet connection. This is where I think there is tremendous value to “e-learning”, and yet it doesn’t seem to be exploited. Instead, the technology simply allows the added convenience that students can access this information and content online. This hardly seems to be an improvement in quality, though it is an improvement in convenience.

    The greatest value of the technology is that it can expand the limits of the classroom. In the next week, my brother (a nigh school physics teacher) is having a video conference call with Albert-Lazlo Barabosi, a world-renowned physicist, in his class. That is an example of exploiting the power of the technology to improve quality: you can now bring in a world-renowned physicist to a high school physics classroom with a connection to Skype and the Internet. This sort of use of technology is sorely missing in education today, and instead it is simply being used to streamline processes. Not in every instance, of course, but I think it is in the majority of cases.

    Just some thoughts, of course. I’d be curious about what you think.

  3. Hi, Tony H,

    Great comments. I particularly agree about scalability. This is where the potential of open educational resources lie. If we can produce really high quality learning ‘modules’, then they can be used over and over again, with relatively small local adaptation, thus freeing up instructors to focus on interacting with their students, rather than delivering content. However, it’s no good just posting up lectures – they need to be modified for open access use.

    I agree that we could be using synchronous technologies for bringing in outside expertise, but real-time interaction with experts is expensive (in terms of the time of the expert) and not always possible. What we could be doing more of though is using our alumni, and drawing on their work experience for our courses.

    Thanks again for the comments, Tony


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