History of e-Learning

The word 'e-Learning'

In October 1999, during a CBT Systems seminar in Los Angeles, a strange new word was used for the first time in a professional environment – ‘e-Learning’. Associated with such expressions as 'online learning' or 'virtual learning', this word was meant to qualify "a way to learn based on the use of new technologies allowing access to online, interactive and sometimes personalized training through the Internet or other electronic media (intranet, extranet, interactive TV, CD-Rom, etc.), so as to develop competencies while the process of learning is independent from time and place2".

So the word itself is not that old. But what about the elements of e-Learning?

The development of the e-Learning revolution arose from a number of other 'educational revolutions'. Four such revolutions cited by Billings and Moursund (1988) are:

  1. the invention of reading & writing;
  2. the emergence of the profession of teacher/scholar;
  3. the development of moveable type (print technology);
  4. the development of electronic technology.

So the basic ideas, methodologies and didactical grounds are not new!

Let's take a closer look of the main experts and milestones who were playing an important role in the history of e-Learning.

Early learning aid
A Roman piece from a place near Trier. It dated from 200 A.C. and shows a school where the teacher is sitting in the middle and two students are sitting around him, reading a parchment role. At the right a student is arriving with his tablet on which he could write. This technique (writing slate) was used within European schools till around 1950.


Dr. Marcel Mirande is mentioning in his book 'De onstuitbare opkomst van de leermachine' (The Unstoppable rise of the Learning machine) that the writing slate actually looks like, and maybe is, the equivalent of the modern laptop. He also states that the meaning and importantance of the writing slates was very clear. It has to be used to develop writing skills. Nowadays we are still developing a clear and balanced view on the new learning aids like laptops.

Sir Isaac Pitman - 1840

First modern distance course

Modern distance education has been around at least since Isaac Pitman taught shorthand in Great Britain via correspondence in the 1840s (shorthand is an abbreviated, symbolic writing method that improves speed of writing or brevity as compared to a normal method of writing a language).

Pitman was a qualified teacher and taught at a private school he founded in Wotton-under-Edge.

He decided to start a distance course and was sending assignments to his students by mail and they completed the 'homework' and sent it back to him.

Pressey Testing Machine

Mechanic testing machine

In the early 1920s Sidney Pressey, an educational psychology professor at Ohio State University, developed a machine to provide drill and practice items to students in his introductory courses. Pressey (1926) stated, " the procedure in mastery of drill and informational material were in many instances simple and definite enough to permit handling of much routine teaching by mechanical means."

The teaching machine that Pressey developed resembled a typewriter with a window that showed a question with four answers. The user pressed the key that corresponded with the correct answer. When the user pressed a key, the machine recorded the answer on a counter to the back of the machine and revealed the next question. After the user was finished, the person scoring the test slipped the test sheet back into the device and noted the score on the counter.

Now we see that this functionality is widely used in online systems like Questionmark Perception. Testing and assessment can be perfectly done in an automated way. The Questionmark Perception assessment management system enables educators and trainers to author, schedule, deliver, and report on surveys, quizzes, tests and exams. It can easy the assessment processes and improve the quality of questions and tests.

A great success?
Do you think that the following statement is true or false?

1. The machine of Pressey was a success in the educational world.

True False
IDevice Icon Watch the animation

Please watch this animation about Questionmark Perception and answer the questions.


Functionalities modern testing environment
Please select the statements about Questionmark Perception (QMP) that are correct.

You can use a secure browser so a student can not copy a question.
You can use 25 types of questions.
Macromedia Flash can be used within the questions.
Scheduling options can be used so students can be limited (certain timeslot).
Only one standard browser can be used: Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 or better.


Instructional media and World War II

Although movies were popular for a while, within educational situations these media was not very popular yet.

With World War II this changed. The war created an enormous instructional problem - thousands of new recruits had to be trained rapidly, and the sophistication of new weapons demanded an unprecedented level of mastery.

Rapidly the new media technology became dominant and widely used. The war was the 'business driver'.

IDevice Question Icon Numbers?
How many educational sound motion pictures were produced between 1941 and 1945 within the U.S Office of Education?
Between 0 - 250
Between 251 - 500
Between 501 - 1000
Between 1001 - 2000
Between 2001 - 5000
Between 5001 - 10,000

Dr. B.F. Skinner

Learners are like rats!

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born March 20, 1904.

In 1945, he became the chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University. In 1948, he was invited to come to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was a very active man, doing research and guiding hundreds of doctoral candidates as well as writing many books.

B. F. Skinner’s entire system is based on operant conditioning. A behaviour followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behaviour occurring in the future. Everybody know his examples with rats.

But Skinner also developed a learning system! And during the 50s the attitude towards teaching machines radically changed. In the United States, there were not enough people to fill all the teaching positions. Also the television was popular within education.

Skinner presented the content in small, related chunks of information. Students didn't have multiple choice questions but they had to write down the answers on a role of paper. Skinners Programmed Instruction was very popular.

At this very moment, programmed instruction is popular when it comes to (digital) self study courses.

Please visit the edutechwiki to find out more about Skinner and programmed instruction. 

The Apple II

Fruitful computer aided learning

The introduction of the first personal computer (the Altair 880 in 1975) was quickly followed by the Apple II and the IBM PC. With the Apple and the IBM the computer was reliable enough and was used for didactical purposes. The usability was improving and the computer was not only meant for nerds anymore.

Especially within mathematics and science many projects were started. Simulations and programmed instruction (De Jong, 1991) were used the most.

Computers were used to make the current, existing tasks easier to perform. They were helpful to some teachers and a nice addition to their teaching tools. It could hardly be called Innovation. It was substitution.

A lot of teachers with some technical skills start programming their own courseware (educational programs). Useful 'drill and practice' exercises were created. Not a lot of courseware were shared amongst teachers. Lot of schools and teacher were having the 'Not-invented-here syndrome'.


Blackboard; teaching machine of the 90s.

Teaching machine of the 90s

At the end of the 90s the learning management systems (LMS) were used. Some universities started to design and develop their own systems but most of the educational institutions started with systems off the market.

One of the key players within the educational market was the American company Blackboard. Outside the educational world, other LMSs became popular like SABA and Docent. Blackboard was a complete solution for the management of the courses. Students and teachers could:

  • exchange learning materials;
  • do tests;
  • communicate with each other in many ways;
  • track and trace the progress;
  • many more.

The environment was able to facilitate learning in quite an easy way. The product was quite simple to use by teachers, there was not a steep learning curve. That was one of the mean reasons for the popularity. Criticasters were telling everybody that this was nothing more than an old model of learning (very teacher centred) with a new way of interacting. No educational innovation was involved.

Dr. Mirande shows us that the use of Blackboard actually changed the educational world because this was the first moment that teachers were accepting and using technology within their own classrooms on a large base!



Hype cycle of Gartner, used for e-Learning
Hype cycle for e-Learning

Every innovation starts in a specific way. It never starts with a balanced use of the new technology. There is a certain process. With Gartner, a leading technology industry analyst, calls this the "hype cycle," and it is unfailingly accurate in the way it predicts technology adoption.

The e-learning market is no exception. Like every other successful technology market, e-learning has wandered down a well beaten path of irrational exuberance followed by manic depression, and now many people are wondering "will this market ever take off?"

At this moment analysts say that the e-Learning market is a mature market. With clear expectations and a realistic view on the relevance of the technology and the concept.

In many organizations e-Learning is part of the learning strategy and is fully integrated in the organizational processes.

It is up to YOU to answer the question about the way you want to use it within your own organization or classroom.

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