Enter your email address to receive a twice-weekly newsletter on learning/technology.

Powered by ymlp.com

| Starting | Enabling | Doing | Evaluating | Managing | Resources | Home
Categories of eLearning

October 18, 2004
George Siemens


One of the biggest challenges in discussing elearning arises from different understandings of the field. Most often, we attach our experiences and career to our conversations, presenting an image of elearning that reflects what we have encountered. For an instructional designer, elearning often means courses or learning materials directed at meeting an objective within the larger scope of program development. A corporate trainer may view elearning as a combination of courses and knowledge management. No one perspective is symbolic of the whole industry.

A danger exists in discussing various segments of elearning: paying too much attention to distinctions across categories. The real focus and unifying theme is (or at least should be) learning – whether it is in a classroom, online, blended, or embedded. Each category presented here is most effective when properly matched with the appropriate learning environment and desired outcome.

None of the categories listed function in isolation. Lines blur between categories, and a successful elearning implementation will incorporate many different ones. In a previous paper, I detailed the holistic and interconnected nature of elearning design. This paper attempts to present the categories, not procedures, of the elearning field.
The categories of elearning:

  1. Courses
  2. Informal learning
  3. Blended learning
  4. Communities
  5. Knowledge management
  6. Networked learning
  7. Work-based learning (EPSS)

Beyond the categories of elearning, it is important to note a few additional factors that impact the field:

Ubiquitous computing
Tools and Delivery for elearning

This mindmap details the interrelation of categories:


Most discussion of elearning centres on courses. Organizations typically take existing educational materials, add various media, sequence the material and consider it “transferred” to the online environment. The popularity of learning management systems (LMS) like WebCT and Blackboard, (and the perception that they are needed as a starting point) testify to the prominence of courses as a view of elearning.
Some designers are beginning to employ simulations, story telling, and the unique traits of online media in an effort to transform the material for representation in a digital environment. The predominance of “courses as elearning” view stems from their similarities to the classroom environment. Both learners and instructors are able to relate to the general structure and flow on a course.

Informal Learning

Informal learning is perhaps the most dynamic and versatile aspect of learning. Unfortunately, it is also the least recognized. Informal learning is a by-product of “information foraging” – “the human behaviour when searching for information was similar to that of the hunter-gatherers and animals in search for food”( Dürsteler, undated). Our need for information (and how we intend to use it) drives our search. Search engines (like Google) coupled with information storage tools (like Furl) and personal knowledge management tools like wikis and blogs present a powerful toolset in the knowledge workers portfolio. Jay Cross (2003): states that:

“At work we learn more in the break room than in the classroom. We discover how to do our jobs through informal learning -- observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning - classes and workshops and online events - is the source of only 10% to 20% of what we learn at work.”

Blended Learning

Blended learning provides the best opportunities for learning transition from classroom to elearning. Blended learning involves classroom (or face-to-face) and online learning. This method is very effective for adding efficiency to classroom instruction and permitting increased discussion or information review outside of classrooms. For example, a new product release may be communicated to sales staff through a three-hour workshop, followed by online resources and discussions for continued learning (without significantly impacting the work activities of the sales force). The rallying cry of educational techno-prophets of the late 90’s (“soon we won’t need instructors, we’ll learn everything online on our own time”) has given way to the reality that learning is a social process, requiring instructor direction and facilitation. Blended learning utilizes the best of classrooms with the best of online learning.


Learning is social (Driscoll, 2000, p.239). Most problems within our business environments today are complex and dynamic. Yesterday’s solutions don’t always work today. Problem solving requires different perspectives to create an accurate understanding of potential solutions and environment of implementation. Online communities allow people to stay current in their field through dialogue with other members of the same organization, or the larger global field. Communities strongly contribute to the flow of tacit knowledge.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge management (KM) is the significant challenge for businesses in a knowledge economy. KM involves the process of identifying, indexing, and making available (in various formats) knowledge generated within the daily activities of an organization. Some companies have found value in managing content, mining emails, and creating communities of practice. Tafe Frontiers presents eight categories of knowledge management: learning and development, information management, client feedback, knowledge capture, knowledge generation, virtual teams, communities of practice, and content management systems (http://www.tafefrontiers.com.au/i_r/progress.html). The duplication of KM and elearning concepts highlights the strong connections (and blurring) between these fields.

Learning Networks

Communities typically form around a particular goal, concept or theme. A learning network is the loose, personal coupling of communities, resources, and people. It is the cornerstone of personal knowledge management. Vaill (1996) states that: “The permanent white water in today’s systems is creating a situation in which institutional learning patterns are simply inadequate to the challenge. Subject matter is changing too rapidly” (p. 41). The utilization of personal learning networks allows knowledge workers to remain current in their field.

Work-based Learning

Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) and work-flow learning attempt to inject learning content into the actual point of need. As an alternative to courses, this style of content presentation requires heavy emphasis on context, and the employee control in initiating the learning needed. This style of learning can be seen in many computer applications (context-sensitive help). For organizations, work-based learning requires a significant investment in resource creation and usability planning (in what situation will a learner want to know this? How should it be presented? What will they search for so they can find it?). Work-based learning is generally and enterprise-wide initiative.

Impacting Factors

Three aspects of elearning are important to note briefly, as they can influence all of the various categories (and are quickly developing into agents shaping the future direction of elearning).

Ubiquitous learning refers to “everywhere learning” (the internet or learning content follows people around). Core “knowledge pots” (work-related content, personal knowledge, internet) hold content and information. Various devices plug in and retrieve the information in the appropriate format (PDA, cell phone, laptop, or any other appliance). Ubiquitous learning fulfills elearning’s promise of “anytime, anywhere, and any context”.
Delivery and Tools
Tools for delivering elearning fit into various categories, significantly influenced by the development of communication technologies on the internet as a whole. A few examples of tools:

  • Learning Management Systems (LMS)
  • Learning Content Management System (LCMS)
  • Collaborative tools (aCollab, Groove)
  • Identity management and digital rights – still an emerging field, but as the success of Microsoft’s Passport reveals, end-users of communication tools require control over their identity. Digital rights tools (for ensuring learning content can be “legally” used) will also continue to grow in popularity).
  • Repositories – MERLOT is an example of a centralized learning content repositories, but many decentralized repositories follow the success of content sharing programs like KaZaA.
  • Voice over IP (VoIP) tools like Skype (http://www.skype.org) will substantially alter the communication landscape. Simple, effective social tools are critical for larger scale adoption of learning that represents the manner in which people work.
  • Other social tools: wikis, blogs, instant messaging are being rapidly adopted due to ease of use.

Delivery type falls into two broad categories:

  • Synchronous delivery (real-time)- streaming, conferencing, and archived presentations
  • Asynchronous delivery (delayed time) through the use of LMS’, collaborative spaces, and discussion boards

Impacting Factors

These various learning categories do not need to function in isolation. A complex learning implementation will certainly incorporate different facets of elearning. During course design, learning resources can be tagged and made available for later use in work-based learning. The knowledge management system can be integrated with (and update) courses. Communities themselves can also provide a feedback loop to courses, work-based learning, and the knowledge management system. Ultimately, the value in categorizing the elearning market is in detailing the entire market and attempting to incorporate as many aspects as are practical into a corporate or educational implementation.


Cross, J. (2003, May) Informal Learning – The Other 80%. Retrieved on October 15, 2004 from http://www.internettime.com/Learning/The%20Other%2080%25.htm

Driscoll, M. (2000). Psycology of Learning for Instruction. Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon.

Dürsteler, J. C. (Undated) Information Hunters. Retrieved on October 15 from http://www.infovis.net/E-zine/2004/num_153.htm

Siemens, G, (2003) The Whole Picture of Elearning. Retrieved on October 15 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/wholepicture.htm

Vaill, P. B., (1996). Learning as a Way of Being. San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Blass Inc.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License