Education on line > Articles in English > A Short History of eLearning

In exploring a history of eLearning, it’s worth keeping in mind how relatively young – or, depending on your age perspective, old – learning technologies (including eLearning) are. Here’s a quick reminder of some technological facts (in alphabetical order):

Learning TechnologyYear invented
Audio podcasts1980s
Computer-based training (see eLearning below)1970s – 1990
Conferencing and virtual classrooms1994
Discussion forums1994
eLearningfrom 1990
Email1986
Embedded performance support1994
Instant messaging1996
Internet (for public use)1995
Knowledge management/sharing knowledge1980s
Mobile learning1983
RSS (Really Simple Syndication)2002
Search tools1994
SMS1992
Telephone1876
Wikis and blogs1995

However, the real origins of eLearning are in the 15th century, when moveable type printing was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany. Until then, the skill of scholarship had centred around learning a text sequentially. Indeed, the advent of moveable type – making it possible to print more books than ever before – encountered strong opposition from some contemporary scholars who argued that, in future, a text could just be read and not have to be learned.

eLearning’s recent origins

Originally known as computer-based training (CBT), eLearning had been in use since the 1960s. In those days, it was delivered via the early, ‘green screen’, mainframe computers – where one central computer served many smaller, remote terminals. By the mid-1970s, IBM had produced a CBT authoring language called IIS. Although it worked slowly, it allowed authors to build CBT programs and this completely changed people’s options for delivering open learning materials.

Until then, open learning had been essentially text-based, principally delivered via books and manuals. There was little or no interaction between the user and the materials. Now, however, open learning could be delivered to people as they worked at their computer screens.

At the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, there were some technological advances – such as the development of the Phoenix authoring language. Phoenix allowed authors not only to build courseware for the mainframe but also to provide user testing and scoring of those tests. This enabled trainers and administrators to keep detailed student records.

The Control Data Corporation developed a similar system, called PLATO. PLATO was a mainframe computer which delivered CBT. Unfortunately, each PLATO machine cost some $5m – compared with Phoenix’s mere $50,000 – and so few companies could afford the luxury of PLATO. But, thanks to PLATO and Phoenix, CBT had become interactive. Users answered questions and those answers were recorded for analysis, enabling trainers to obtain some measure of the courseware’s effectiveness. Throughout the 1980s, PLATO declined – principally because of its cost. Meanwhile, Phoenix made another advance for computer-based open learning by adding computer managed instruction (CMI) to its list of capabilities.

CMI was an automated way of defining each learner’s curriculum – preventing learners wasting time and their employers wasting money taking courses they didn’t need to take. Using CMI, students‘ test scores were recorded and analysed. It was claimed that the software then determined the optimum amount of further learning for each learner.

eLearning evolution

As personal computers (PCs) – each with a graphical user interface (GUI) – grew in numbers and usage, from the early 1990s, CBT courseware was developed for this market. At this time, the term ‘eLearning’ began to take over from ‘CBT’. CBT producers added audio and, later, video, along with animations to their programs – and made ‚multimedia-based‘ open learning, often delivered via CDs. While these enabled more ‘bandwidth-heavy’ programs to be created and delivered, updating the learning materials and then ensuring that all learners had copies of the most up-to-date CDs proved a challenge.

The internet emerged into public use in 1995 from the ARPANET, a US military project started in 1966 which became operational in 1971. The mid-1990s also saw the growth of ‚client/server‘ technology. The advent of the internet and client/server technology meant that CBT programs could now be brought back to a centralised location and distributed over a network, in the same way as CBT had been delivered via a mainframe some 30 years previously. Client/server technology made it possible to use more sophisticated software both on the server and the client machine – and this made communication between the two, via local and wide area networks (LANs and WANs), more efficient.

The internet’s rapid growth in popularity, allied to the advent of client/server technology, meant that CBT programmes could now be brought back to a centralised location and distributed over a network, in the same way as CBT had been delivered via a mainframe for some 20 years. Now, though – for the first time – eLearning could be delivered from one centralised location to any PC on a network anywhere in the world, using the internet or its derivative, the corporate intranet. Moreover, delivering learning in this way became relatively inexpensive. So, investing in a range of electronically-delivered learning modes and materials in this period helped organisations to do new things, to do more things than ever before and to do these things more efficiently and effectively.

So, learning materials could – once again – be put in one location, updated in one location and distributed from one location in the same way as had been done for CBT on a mainframe. This allowed the reintroduction of CMI, allowing tutors and administrators to monitor and manage the open learning process efficiently and cost-effectively. This gave rise to learning management systems (LMSs) (see below).

Authoring Tools

The authoring tools for PC-based CBT weren’t tied to large, mainframe systems. Although they didn’t have the CMI and other administration benefits contained in a tool such as Phoenix, they could exploit the PC’s GUI to develop colourful and interactive programs. These programs were more engaging and ‚exciting‘ than mainframe-delivered, green-screen CBT – especially to users whose visual tastes were being increasingly educated through computer games. Soon, CBT producers were using audio and, later, video, along with animations – and making ‚multimedia based‘ open learning.

Unfortunately, these were all stand-alone courses, so there was no way of finding out who was using the courses, how they were using them, how effective the training was and so on. Moreover, since much of this courseware was being produced on CD-ROMs (CDs), once a course needed updating, the whole course had to be revised, re-pressed and distributed – and all the old copies of the course destroyed, to ensure that only the current version of the course was being used.

Two main types of eLearning content producers emerged during the 1990s: those producing ‘generic’ eLearning and those producing ‘bespoke’ learning materials commissioned by clients. Producers – espousing a creative path – developed their eLearning materials using their preferred authoring tools, chosen from a growing range. These authoring tools had developed from the authoring systems developed in the early days of mainframe-delivered CBT.

Learning Management Systems

In the 1990s, the advent of the internet and client/server technology brought the systems side of the industry back to prominence – and gave rise to the learning management system (LMS) and its near-sibling, the learning content management system (LCMS).

LMSs have been around since the mid-1990s – about the time that the internet became available to the public. Before that, they were known as authoring systems and can trace their ancestry to the PLATO mainframe system, developed in the early 1960s at the University of Illinois. PLATO was developed to ‘use (mainframe) computers for teaching’ and this led to products such as the DOS-based authoring system TenCORE, as well as Macromedia’s Authorware, and even Lotus Notes.

An LMS’s key purpose is administrative. LMSs house learning content but focus on learning process management and content delivery. An LMS is software for planning, delivering and managing learning events within an organisation, hopefully encompassing online, virtual classroom and instructor-led courses. It allows learners access to learning materials; records who has accessed what – and what they did with it – and produces one or more reports about it. Its main jobs are to keep track of learners’ progress and performance across all types of training activities and then produce reports for instructors, HR and other ERP systems as well as, ultimately, the main board.

Learning Content Management Systems

The LMS’s near-relative, the learning content management system (LCMS), is content-centric. Emerging around the same time as LMSs – that is, the mid 1990s – LCMSs focus on the authoring and management of reusable content for online learning materials. LCMS solutions are used to create content-centric learning strategies. They support a range of methods for gathering and organising content. LCMS technology can be used in tandem with an LMS or as a standalone application for learning initiatives that require rapid development and distribution of learning content.

Rather than developing whole courses and adapting them to multiple audiences, an LCMS is designed to manage learning content across an organisation’s various L&D areas. It provides developers, authors, instructional designers and subject matter experts with the means to create and re-use online learning content while reducing – and maybe eradicating – wasteful duplication in developing these learning materials.

eLearning Today

Both strands of the eLearning industry – content and systems – are continuing to develop. Although the term ‘eLearning’ continues to be unpopular with its developers, buyers and users, no viable alternative name has, so far, emerged. Nonetheless, eLearning content continues to take advantage of developing technologies including augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. On the systems side, LMSs and LCMSs have been joined – since 2018 – by the Learning Experience Platform (LXP).

LXPs aim to complement – not replace – LMSs by tracking learning activities that take place off the (LMS) platform, such as informal learning discussions and online chats. While LMSs focus on the administration of learning, especially the tracking of learning and meeting compliance regulations, LXPs focus on the student’s learning experience and aim to facilitate personalised learning, allowing users to choose their own learning from a diverse array of personalised content. So, LXPs aim to provide on-the-job learning; allow learners to work on their own timeline; present user-generated content, and address learning goals that are constantly changing as well as, generally, manage learning activities that require less measurement. So, L&D professionals are in control of the LMS, eLearning developers control the LCMS but learners control the LXP, choosing from an assortment of available – often less ‘formal’ and, thus, less ‘measurable’ – learning experiences

About Bob Little

Having graduated from the University of Wales with a BSc in economics, Bob Little became a journalist and editor specialising in the corporate training/ learning sector. In May 1990, having founded his own public relations business, he was introduced to what became the corporate online learning technologies industry and has worked in this sector – worldwide – ever since as a writer, commentator and publicist.

Bob has advised many organisations around the world – ranging from niche companies to large, multi-national enterprises, including BBC Worldwide (UK), the Tata Group (India) and Lattanzio Group (Italy). He has spoken at conferences on corporate learning in the UK, the USA, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Germany. He has also chaired corporate learning related conferences in the UK, the USA, Croatia, Germany and Australia.

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