Downes, S. (2012) E-learning Generations, Half-an-Hour, February 11

Stephen’s contribution

In general, I try to complement rather than repeat what Stephen writes (which is just as well, seeing how prolific he is). However, I’m highlighting his latest post, because it brings together all in one place an overview of his views on the development of e-learning, and in particular the different aspects and approaches to e-learning that have developed over more than 20 years. Especially for those studying online learning and e-learning, this post of Stephen’s is a very useful ‘one-stop’ resource. Stephen’s overview is particularly strong on linking technological trends to their application to e-learning, and he also provides an interesting perspective on the technological and conceptual aspects of MOOCs.

History before Downes

My only advantage over Stephen is that I am older, and have been teaching online longer. So I would like to complement what Stephen has done by pointing out that e-learning has even deeper roots than those discussed by Stephen. In particular I would like to recognize the pioneering work of Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They developed a networked collaborative learning approach that they called computer-mediated communication (CMC), which they used as a blended learning model, using NJIT’s own computer network, i.e. it pre-dated the Internet (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). So the emphasis on interaction rather than content management was there right at the start of e-learning.

In the early 1980s the Open University in the United Kingdom developed an audio-graphics system called Cyclops that worked over the public telephone system for delivery through its regional study centres (McConnell, 1983). This enabled faculty at the centre to communicate in real time with distance students. This was the forerunner of teleconferencing technology such as Elluminate and Blackboard Collaborate (click here for more details)

The work of Turoff and Hiltz was reinforced by staff at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who in 1983 developed a text-based online collaborative learning tool called CoSy that worked over telephone systems.

The very first article in the then new Journal of Distance Education in 1986 was entitled “Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education?” (Bates, 1986). This argued that the use of IT for communication between teachers and learners was far more important than trying to use technology to manage learning in a behaviourist way.

In 1988, the Open University in the United Kingdom added a ‘massive’ online discussion forum to its Introduction to Information Technology: Social and Technological Issues (DT200), with over 1350 students from all over the United Kingdom linked online, using dial-up modems over the telephone system (Mason, 1989). As an instructor on that course, it was an unnerving experience dealing with over 1,000 students in the same discussion forum, and many useful lessons were learned.

Other experiments were also taking place at the same in both Europe and North America – the list is too long to continue (see Harasim et al.,1995, for more examples).

Communication or content transmission?

My point here is that the use of IT for communication between students, and between instructor and student, has always been a key goal of many working in education. The learning management system came afterwards. LMSs have many valuable features, above all by providing an organizing framework for online learning, and can include tools for online discussion and collaboration, but unfortunately, too often LMSs have been used mainly as a place to dump content, and have, perhaps unfairly, been associated with information transmission rather than communication.

The other key development is that we have moved away from the confines of text-based or even synchronous audio to rich, multimedia environments that support a variety of approaches to teaching and learning. We now have many tools that sit comfortably outside the LMS – or can be easily integrated with it.

What can we learn from the history?

Thus the main consequences for me of more recent developments in e-learning are as follows:

  • the technology is much cheaper, more user-friendly and more reliable
  • as a result, it is more ubiquitous, and no longer the domain of educational or technology specialists: it’s being used by everyone
  • consequently, a great deal of e-learning is now informal as well as formal, and educators are still learning how best to work with this
  • e-learning is not one ‘thing’, but an historical development and process that means different things to different people
  • educational technology has moved from being something that supported classroom teaching and later distance education, to a force for radical change in our educational systems – but radical change based on the full potential of e-learning is something that still has yet to occur on any significant scale.
  • the challenges for e-learning are no longer technological, but ones of desire, organization and appropriate application based on prior knowledge, experiment, and evaluation.
  • we need innovative teachers and administrators, and thinkers such as Stephen and others, to continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, while at the same time not ignoring the lessons from history. As George Santayana wrote: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

In the meantime I strongly commend Stephen’s post. It is well worth reading.


Bates. A. (1986) Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 1, No. 1

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995).  Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching & Learning Online Cambridge: MIT Press

Hiltz, R. and Turoff, M. (1978) The Networked Nation Reading MA: Addison-Wesley

Mason, R. (1989) An evaluation of CoSy on an Open University course, in Mason, R. and Kaye, T. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford: Pergamon

Mason, R. and Kaye, T. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford: Pergamon

McConnell, D.(1983) Sharing the screen, Media in Education and Development, Vol. 16, No. 2


  1. Tony, thank you for responding to Downes’ article with references to our early work in this area. I did want to point out one major finding that those that have done evaluations have discovered. The online course can be better than the face to face when collaborative learning is used as the teaching methodology. The very first evaluation, which Roxanne did was sponsored in the mid 80’s by the Annenberg Project and it is located on the web in a collection of the reports of the Computerized Conferencing and Communications center on the NJIT web site (report 25 and 26).

    It took 17 different courses and the same instructor taught a face to face and online. We found that the learning was the same as measured by assignments and exams. However, in one course, computer science, the students learned a lot more online. It took many more studies to finally realize the fact that the instructor gave a team oriented programming assignment was the reason for this to occur. At first we thought it was only the nature of the subject and the students who liked computers.

    Roxanne published a book a few years back on all the evaluations that had been done on many of the Sloan sponsored project and it gives more up-to-date evidence. At one college that was part of the original study the faculty wanted to forbid the online teaching because they all felt it was being unethical in offering the students an inferior course online! There are some that still feel that way.

    The secret of doing collaborative learning is having the software that facilitates collaborative learning processes. See the older paper on the special features we had on the EIES system in the early days to do this.
    You can find the following paper on my website

    Turoff, Murray (1995) Software Design and the Future of the Virtual Classroom, Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education, Vol 4, No. 2, 1995
    There are some other classic papers on that website and on Roxanne’s

    When you add collaborative communications to a face to face class the face to face class can be better as well. The ultimate is where it makes no difference in the same class when some of the students are face to face and some students are distance and they are able to collaborate.

    One other comment is that the danger of online learning is that many institutions that don’t know better still dream of one professor with hundreds of students, receiving lectures and individual assignments with a team of graders to hand the assignments and no real student to student collaboration and team work. In all the comparative evaluation studies this turns out to be worse than the classic face to face classroom. Unfortunately consumers do not understand the difference until they can experience the collaborative type of online course. It is the old observation that automating what is done without computers on computers is usually a poor quality design process.

  2. Thanks, Tony. I still have a T-shirt from Guelph that says “Let’s Get CoSy”. I wear it for gardening, but perhaps I should preserve it as an artefact. My own work was at OISE, but shortly after we attempted to launch a CoSy based network for schools in BC, and Guelph sent shirts with the software.

  3. How nice to hear from Murray, Tim, and you Tony on the history of eLearning or online education. I have joined a number of blogs on Linked IN and at least there, it seems that those who use the term: ‘online education’, often relate it to online collaborative learning. The blogs on ‘eLearning’, are more typically industry training-related, and define elearning to mean courseware, not teaching or learning. Recently, I began to call it “deLearning”.

    As Murray points out, the field is still really confused about what education online can offer and how it could/should be offered to gain the best results. I deal with this issue in Chapter 6 of my book, in an attempt to help educators discover that the term online education can mean at least 3 very different pedagogies…..

    Mostly what this column has triggered for me is a bit of nostalgia for the 1980s and 1990s when there was so much to learn and those involved with online education were were experimenting, researching, designing new technologies and new pedagogies. And mostly, this group was able to frequently meet at conferences to discuss, share, debate and engage as a knowledge community.

    Today awareness and adoption of online education/elearning have grown tremendously, but personally I do not think that we have advanced significantly. There is almost nothing significant that has come to our field over the past decade. Social media has become a tsunami and teachers are trying to use Twitter as a discussion medium.
    Social media have become quite a distraction in education, in many ways.

    One area of some hope, imho, is learning analytics: educators do teach to the test, as it were. If we can identify (easy and effective) ways to assess collaborative learning and knowledge building, then we may discover this to be a key to opening the door to new teaching practice. Educators may become far more enthusiastic to use online collaborative learning if they know how to assess it.

    This is where I am putting some energy these days. I look forward to hearing what others think.


  4. Thanks to Tony for the nice introduction to Stephen Downe’s book, and for his notes on Turoff’s and Roxanne’s work in the area of E-Learning. As a student in many of Murray’s classes from 1985 to 1988, I was one of those who experienced first-hand the beauty and potential of hybrid course delivery methods. It was truly novel for a newly arrived student from India to be given an account on the EIES system, and using that to interact with fellow students, the professor, planning and working on assignments, and using the large number of experts already online on EIES as resources to complete the assignments. Now, 25 years later, I teach several Information Systems courses online, with tools that are pretty sophisticated. But I still believe that the hybrid approach that was used on EIES, as well as the online experts I had within the EIES community and within my reach was amazing for its time and left a lasting impression on me.

    -Ramesh Subramanian

    • OMG Matthew! The tweet that you posted seriously misinterprets my earlier comment in this blog (which you briefly quote); or at least what I intended to communicate. And what I really do feel about the field of online learning.

      I will take the blame…probably because I was speaking off the cuff and did not adequately contextualize my points. I know Tony, Murray and Tim, and I was continuing a discussion thread that has a long history. But since I did not clearly state my position, I can see how it may not have been clear to you and perhaps others. So, I will try to restate:

      1. I am saying that while the level of adoption of online education has really grown, the innovations in pedagogy and/or technology have not advanced significantly since the 1980s or early 1990s. We were doing Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) in the 1980s, and developing pedagogies for this new approach and also developing technologies to support OCL, for example environments such as Turoff’s TEIES; Harasim’s Virtual-U.
      Books were written about online collaborative learning, learning networks, virtual classrooms, etc; and many research papers were presented to study and support the educational and socio-cognitive benefits of OCL (even tho we did not use the term OCL as a formal type. More advanced papers were published about hypertext and online education, semantic webs, etc. etc. etc. (Turoff—)
      Since the mid-1980s, we were active in seeking ways to study learning in online learning activities (see Harasim, 1990; Winkelmans, 1989; Hiltz, 1994 plus many many others).

      So I was reminiscing and noting that in the past decade—despite the huge increase in adoption of online education, and despite major advances in technologies related to the web and web 2.0, there have NOT been the same quality or quantity of breakthrus in the field of online education that we saw and experienced in the 1980s. The 1980s was a period of great buzz, and excitement about the potential of online education and there was ALOT of innovation and new thinking. Educational paradigms were being shifted in the 1980s. This began to wane in the 1990s, and while adoption increased, innovation stalled. The 1990s saw the reinvention of distance education and of CAI/CBT courseware, except that they were delivered over the Internet and not by post or CD-Rom.

      We need the buzz, inventiveness and continuing advances in online education today that characterized the 1980s and early 1990s We NEED new and better learning environments: Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT DID NOT represent any advances and arguably were setbacks because they did not have a commitment to ‘learning’, only to ‘delivery’ of educational stuff. That is why I said that there have been no real inventions or advances in the past decade of online learning.

      2. My comment on social media (that you cite) intended to say that the buzz with social media such as FB, twitter, youtube, etc etc is distracting to teachers because these media do not support in any clear or demonstratable way, educational discourse or learning. They are SOCIAL media, not necessarily LEARNING media. There IS a difference, I believe.
      However, the pressure on teachers to incorporate new ways of online learning added to the lack of guidance in how to do so, is creating quite a bit of chaos for teachers, profs, trainers, and educators in general. SOcial media is what it is— its power for social communication is unquestionable given the multimillion adopters worldwide. Its value for learning and for for knowledge building can, however, be (and should be) questioned. There is no evidence of the effectiveness of the new social media for formal and nonformal learning , because a) we have not yet understood how to use it for effective learning; or b) it needs to be reshaped or redesigned for effective learning.
      Yet, hundreds of thousands of teachers are trying to incorporate wikis, twitter, etc etc into their classrooms or courses, without any real idea of why or how it impacts learning. Using these social media is more of a badge of
      effort than it is of effectiveness. I do not blame the teachers because they are trying. I don’t blame anyone—I simply think that we need to be real and recognize the reality and the problems, and seek to better realize the potential of online learning.
      Which gets me to my final point:
      3. Your tweet interprets my previous comments as suggesting that learning analytics and not social media are the way forward. I do not believe this and it is not what I meant to say. The 2 points are distinct from one another.
      Point One: Social media need to be studied carefully to see what educational value they can offer, or how they can best offer value pedagogically or whether existing new social media need to be redesigned to be better related to learning.
      Point Two (totally different from Point One): Learning ANalytics represent a new technological development that suggest significant promise for advancing online learning adoption and success.

      I hope that this helps to clarify my positions and my thoughts, because I take my role in the field seriously and if there is to be a debate, then at least I hope that my position is reflected accurately. I also appreciate your efforts to share the ideas here and to stimulate thought and discussion in our field.


  5. […] In particular I would like to recognize the pioneering work of Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They developed a networked collaborative learning approach that they called computer-mediated communication (CMC), which they used as a blended learning model, using NJIT’s own computer network, i.e. it pre-dated the Internet (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). Stephen Downes’ overview of e-learning: and a little history lesson […]

    • Studying history is a great opportunity to learn about events that have shaped the modern world and learn from the lessons of the past. … History encourages people to understand the perspective that different people bring to their analyses and to understand why people interpret events in a particular way.

  6. Hello, please help. How do I reference the this article? Trying to figure out who wrote this article and the title as it seem to be mixed up?

  7. This is a very good and clear history of e-learning. Especially for those teacher who have just started to practice e.learning and use it with their students.

  8. A very good approach to clear the history or root of online teaching for those who are taking their first flight in this wast horizon.

  9. This is indeed a well briefed review on the history of e-learning and it will help newly enroll teachers on the way forward as far as e-learning learning is concern.

  10. Understanding the history of online teaching is very useful because it makes the topic clearer, and gives you a wider understanding of online teaching

  11. It is a very good approach to clear the history or root of online teaching for those who are taking their first flight in this wast horizon. A well briefed review on the history of e-learning and it will help newly enroll teachers on the way forward as far as e-learning learning is concern.

  12. Going through the history has paved a way of providing the significance of online learning. As teachers, the need to enhance the knowledge on online teaching will help us find better ways on the kind of online techniques that best suit students’ capabilities.

  13. I strongly agreed that all teachers have to reshape the way we use the technology. In my country , the use of online teaching is growing due to the Corona virus Pandemic as a solution to finish and start the new school year. We had to choose online plarforms that students could have easy access with the teachers ´lessons and tasks in all technological devices .

  14. It is very interesting to look at the historical development of E learning and Online Learning over the past 30 years That the present Pandemic of 2019 seems to be favoring persons with higher education who are able to articulate Online Learning groundings. There seems to be, however, not enough consideration by governmental agencies for persons with lower levels education to benefit from the creating opportunities.
    There is need for consideration of this group to be afforded social justice of opportunities in their business space. These trade persons and others such as mechanics, plumbers, masons and the like are in the line but are not being seen. It cannot be said that they are not bright and are not on top of the technologies applicable to create sustainable opportunities.
    From a pedagogic standpoint they are very versed with new technologies in terms of devices and social media platforms such as: twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
    Many school children are now remaining at home with pending exams for higher school placement without web devices and promised prospects that their villages will be equipped with the necessary Wi-Fi in the future.

  15. It is quite enlightening to read the historical developments of online teaching/learning over the years. It is quite evident that education and acquiring new knowledge have taken on new forms and will continue to do so where the use of technology is used to reach large masses of people.
    In these times we see how the COVID 19 outbreak has imposed on us to carry out our normal lives, socially, educationally, etc., and technology is instrumental in making that possible. It has made it incumbent on us to be innovative in our learning and our every day livelihood and to take responsibility for our own learning.
    It requires us to transform our thinking and actions in numerous ways whether we like it or not.

  16. I must agree Nathaniel in that persons in the technical vocational areas are generally underestimated and are given little or no consideration.

  17. Online teaching has made us to be innovative, this is a platform to transform. This is a good approach, regardless of challenges it makes one to be an independent thinker.

  18. The short article supplies a detailed introduction of the background and also development of e-learning, with a certain emphasis on the viewpoint of expert Stephen Downes. While it might not show current advancements in modern technology and also pedagogy, the write-up offers a solid structure for comprehending the concepts and also ideas of e-learning.


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