How E-Learning Will Transform Education

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The purpose of education in this society is to bring the kids up to be conversant with the most important ideas and the representation systems that are used to express them.

—Alan Kay Computer pioneer

To talk about e-learning is to talk about literacy—albeit a new kind of literacy.

As a former educator, and as someone who has been both personally and professionally focused on exploring the value and impact of education, I have my own opinions about these matters. And I'm inclined to believe that many of these debates miss the point by a wide mark.

Very broadly, the mission of education is to develop literate citizens. Students need to be schooled not only in alphabetic and numeric literacy, but also to develop a fluent understanding of the history of ideas. More than that, students must strive to become fluent in the ideas of their own time. To that end, learners must—as the former Apple Computer fellow, now Walt Disney Company innovator Alan Kay suggests—understand and be able to manipulate the systems of representation that bring those ideas to life. And to do that, learners must be social creatures, because learning takes place only when there is an exchange of ideas.

Today, when people talk about education, the conversation frequently turns to a new type of education called "e-learning." Like everything else associated with the Internet, the term e-learning is subject to much mystification and hype. Nevertheless, to talk about e-learning is really still to be talking about literacy, albeit a new kind—a literate understanding of the ideas of a time characterized by new cultural dynamics: globalization, "the new economy," and the World Wide Web. It is also to talk about a new form of social interaction.

What is e-learning? It is a means of becoming literate involving new mechanisms for communication: computer networks, multimedia, content portals, search engines, electronic libraries, distance learning, and Web-enabled classrooms. E-learning is characterized by speed, technological transformation, and mediated human interactions.

This new mode of learning promises to transform the experience of the classroom in a number of fundamental ways: by augmenting traditional textbook materials with online resources and content portals; by enhancing customary "chalk and talk" lectures through the use of rich multimedia and interactive content; and by extending student discussions beyond the walls of the classroom via a wide range of new communications platforms supporting interclassroom collaboration.

Furthermore, e-learning will transform schooling outside the classroom as well: by providing students with Web-based tutoring on demand in place of traditional help-sessions after class; by offering parents a more efficient means of assessing their children's progress via online access to real-time student-information systems, rather than through traditional quarterly report cards; and by allowing learners to access their coursework from multiple locations, including the home, rather than solely on school grounds.>

E-learning will transform education, and public-private partnerships must lead the way.

One of the things that makes e-learning unique in the history of our national education objectives is that it involves much more intimate contact between schools and private, entrepreneurial businesses—the Internet companies whose software and hardware solutions or other online content and tools make e-learning possible.

The success of e-learning programs to date has depended upon the capacity of school administrators, teachers, parents, education businesses, and policy leaders to collaborate effectively. And scaling the success of these programs will require these diverse groups to work together ever more closely. Today, e-learning companies, such as Pearson Learning Network, Project Achieve, Lightspan, and a host of others, work side by side with teachers, students, and parents to bring a richer educational experience to the classroom.

To the extent that these collaborations succeed, they promise to simultaneously connect learners, educators, and the community on a global scale. In doing so, they force us to rethink the purpose and architecture of our educational infrastructures in very fundamental ways. While e-learning will not replace the classroom, it has the potential to change the purpose and function of the classroom considerably, because e-learning offers us new ways to think about designing and delivering educationnot just between the ages of 5 and 18, but across a lifetime.

Connectivity, content, community. These are the buzzwords of the new education landscape. Today, social, technological, and economic drivers are transforming our systems of learning. As human capital becomes the chief source of economic value, education and training become lifelong endeavors for the majority of workers. E-learning offers us potentially less expensive, more convenient, and richer ways of becoming educated, and of coming into contact with more diverse groups of fellow learners than ever before.

The capacity for e-learning to make a really significant contribution to our education programs, however, remains uncertain. There are many challenges to be faced if e-learning initiatives are to realize their full potential. In the United States, surveys show that the vast majority of teachers feel underprepared to use technology in the classroom. While the federal government's E-rate program has done much to wire our nation's public K-12 schools, a great deal of work remains to be done: Many classrooms are still without Internet connections, and the benefits of e- learning, therefore, remain largely inaccessible for large numbers of students.

E-learning represents a powerful convergence of technological opportunity and economic necessity.

At the same time, the much-talked-about pedagogical benefits of rich multimedia educational materials will not be realized until bandwidth issues are adequately addressed. Because wiring and cabling are expensive both to install and maintain, some schools may choose to wait until wireless systems become widely available. But this strategy will defer the benefits of e-learning and will result in some students' being disadvantaged relative to their peers.

There are also significant costs associated with keeping school computers and network infrastructures up to date—and these products and services will have to become more affordable, perhaps through options for leasing rather than purchasing, if schools are going to keep up with and benefit from the most recent technological innovations. Surrounding all these issues is the much broader challenge of providing equitable e-learning opportunities across communities—wealthy and poor alike.

Certainly, these challenges will not be overcome without much effort, but there are many reasons for working to overcome them. E-learning represents a long-term opportunity for us to rethink the value of education over a lifetime. As such, it can help us more effectively develop the "knowledge workers" required to sustain the growth of the new economy—workers, after all, who must possess a fluent understanding of both the ideas and communications systems of the modern workplace. Moreover, because of the mobility that is characteristic of e-learning, it can become embedded in many daily activities, and this has the potential to reshape our understanding of the time and place for learning in our lives.

Realizing the promise of e- learning will require forging new kinds of public and private partnerships. In recent years, educators and business leaders have worked more closely together than ever before, and much work remains to be done that will have to be accomplished in partnership. Education businesses such as have quickly established points of contact with thousands of schools, resulting in a new kind of infrastructure for the development of education communities. Leading companies such as Sylvan Learning Systems have established strong bonds with consumers and schools around a host of tutorial and remedial services. Many other companies are likewise helping administrators and educators successfully explore the full potential for online learning on a daily basis.

By promoting these kinds of partnerships, we can harness the power of e-learning to transform schooling in many beneficial ways. For students and teachers, e-learning offers access to a broad array of content and commentary, interactive self-paced learning tools, a vast community of learners, and distance-learning opportunities—very nearly a "classroom without walls." For parents, e-learning provides new ways of staying involved in their children's education. For education businesses, e-learning is a venue for creating value— economic value and human potential. Done well, the net effect of e-learning programs should be a genuine transformation in the way children learn.

E-learning presents a long-term opportunity for us to rethink the value of education over a lifetime.

It would, of course, be a mistake to regard online learning as an educational panacea. By itself, e-learning will not drive up student test scores, nor will it ensure educational equity for all learners. But e-learning businesses and their institutional partners are demonstrating the rich potential of Web-based education. The significance and impact of these jointly developed programs is evident in the wide-ranging support they have received from parents, schools, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy leaders.

Because e-learning represents a powerful convergence of technological opportunity and economic necessity, its emergence presents a unique occasion to undertake a considered re-evaluation of the role and function of education over the course of a lifetime. Working together, administrators, teachers, students, parents, education entrepreneurs, and policy leaders can realize the potential for e-learning to substantially improve and expand the learning opportunities for children in our K-12 schools. The work accomplished so far suggests that e-learning can play a substantive role in developing a new breed of literate citizens for the global economy of the 21st century.

Peter J. Stokes is a business analyst and the executive vice president of, a Boston-based market-research firm. This essay is adapted from "E-Learning: Education Businesses Transform Schooling," prepared under contract to the American Institutes for Research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational technology. The opinions presented do not represent the official positions or policies of the department, and no endorsement should be inferred.

Vol. 20, Issue 2, Pages 44, 56

Published in Print: September 13, 2000, as How E-Learning Will Transform Education
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