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History of eLearning: “E” is for “Evolutionary”

TimelineBlogLarge ILGeLearning—also known as online learning, educational technology, computer-based training (CBT), and web-based training (WBT)—has roots deep in the early decades of the 20th century.

What does the e in elearning stand for? It’s not just electronic anymore. The elearning pioneer Bernard Luskin says it represents “exciting, energetic, engaging, extended learning.”

We’d like to propose an even better meaning: e is for evolutionary.

The biggest difference between the elearning of the 20th century and where we are today is that it’s evolved to become an enhancement of learning, not a replacement. (There’s another e-word!)

Where did it all start?

The First eLearning Devices: 1924

“There must be an industrial revolution in education in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.”

– Sidney Pressey, 1924, inventor of the Automatic Teacher, the first electronic device used in schools

The Automatic Teacher was essentially a primitive Scantron/bubble-sheet testing machine. The cost was about $15—half the amount required to educate a student for a whole year during that era. The machine worked by requiring children to answer each question correctly before going on to the next one.

But it was not to be. “Pressey’s ‘Automatic Teacher’ is a rich example of failure in the midst of modernist commitments to scientific and technological progress,” says Stephen Petrina in his article “Sidney Pressey and the Automation of Education.” Although Pressey’s intention was to give actual teachers more time with their students—and not replace them with a machine—only 250 were ever produced.

BF Skinner’s “Teaching Machine”: 1954

30 years after Pressey’s invention, BF Skinner created the “Teaching Machine” to promote self-management—or how students think and respond to stimuli in their environment. It was a mechanical device programmed with questions and rewards for correct answers. The machine gave students immediate and regular reinforcement designed to keep them engaged with novel material.

This video shows Skinner himself describing its use. Fascinating!

The goals of the “Teaching Machine” that BF Skinner describes are similar to our modern interpretation of online learning:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Self-paced learning
  • Ability to align with student’s level
  • Ability to cover more material in less time

 From Mainframe to Mainstream

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s, computers continued to shrink in size while offering exponentially greater power. Not much innovation took place in business elearning until the 1980s, when employees gained access to personal computers. Floppy discs and CD-based videos were gaining popularity in training. By this point in academia, the Open University in the UK began offering Internet-based courses, which were incredibly popular with 2,000 students enrolled during the first year.

 Modern eLearning: Collaboration

Thanks in part in part to Moore’s Law and our increasing access to the Internet, today we’re immersed in computer-supported collaborative learning. CSCL relies on technological innovation to improve teaching and learning. Think “eLearning 2.0,”—social, collaborative, networked environments where learners work together on tasks and share information and knowledge. The tools of CSCL are virtual classrooms, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and virtual worlds. (Hey you’re reading this online, aren’t you?)

The past decade has been especially monumental for elearning. It’s all about connectivism—the perspective that knowledge exists in the world rather than in an individual’s mind. Opportunities to connect are found everywhere. YouTube. Twitter. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). ScoopIt. iTunes U. Skype. Any number of topic-specific blogs. We could go on and on!

(By the way, if you’re having trouble keeping up with the nomenclature of learning, you’re not alone. Check out this great infographic, which breaks down learning lingo.)

So, readers, does “elearning” still have to be a thing? Is it still so novel that we need to differentiate it from “regular” learning?

How do you see learning continuing to evolve? Please leave your comments below.

ASTD Learning Leaders Forum: Leading Brain Based Learning

ASTD Learning Leaders Forum: Leading Brain Based Learning with  Jillian Douglas

Intended Audience
The Learning Leaders’ Forum is designed for workplace learning professionals who have a minimum of 10 years of workplace learning experience (or equivalent) and are responsible for developing workplace learning strategies. These programs are designed to offer strategic insight and time for round table interaction with peers.

Understanding the neuroscience of how adults learn can help trainers and instructional designers build training that maximizes employee retention, and help training departments improve the effectiveness of training efforts throughout their organizations. In this session, you’ll learn six of Dr. John Medina™s Brain Rules and their implications for leading learning strategies. Based Dr. John Medina breakthrough book, this session employs video, discussion, and research, plus you’ll walk away with a strategy for integrating brain-based learning in your organization.


  • Identify opportunities to leverage neuroscience to improve the effectiveness of training efforts throughout your organization
  • Outline a strategy document for integrating brain-based learning in your organization.

What we learn before we’re born

Wonderful and fascinating Ted talk by Annie Murphy Paul about the experience of learning from the perspective of a fetus.  “Learning is one of life’s most essential activities, and it begins much earlier than we ever imagined.”

To what extent do the conditions we encounter before birth influence our individual characteristics? It‘s the question at the center of fetal origins, a relatively new field of research that measures how the effects of influences outside the womb during pregnancy can shape the physical, mental and even emotional well-being of the developing baby for the rest of its life.

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul calls it a gray zone between nature and nurture in her book Origins, a history and study of this emerging field structured around a personal narrative — Paul was pregnant with her second child at the time. What she finds suggests a far more dynamic nature between mother and fetus than typically acknowledged, and opens up the possibility that the time before birth is as crucial to human development as early childhood.

How Hard is it to Count to Five?

Pretty darn hard. Play this fun, one-minute game from Posit Science Corp and test your brain age.

“Our R&D team has come up with a pretty quick and fun way to measure certain cognitive abilities. It just involves counting from 1 to 5 numbers, so it’s hard to imagine how that could be made so challenging. The 60-second brain game is a type of Stroop test, which measures auditory and visual processing, attention, cognitive control and other aspects of executive function. You can try it as often as you’d like and please do challenge your friends with your best score. For a little fun, click here.”

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