Friday, October 26, 2012

A Brief History of Online E-Learning Software

Photograph of Walton Hall on the Open Universi...
Photograph of Walton Hall on the Open University's campus in Milton Keynes, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by David Maratos

The Correspondence Course

After the second world war, (1938 to 1945) many people in England and the Commonwealth had missed vital years of their education; for many, employment and career progression benefited from something called a 'Correspondence Course'.

These were fairly successful because the learning was often in a home environment and it was not unusual for other family members to try to be helpful.

There would be face to face help and discussions about the course work both at home and with friends / colleagues in the workplace. The correspondence course was considered a successful way of distance learning.

The Open University

In the 60's the UK Government wanted to create a 'wireless university' and in 1964 Labour won the General Election; their election manifesto contained a commitment to establish 'The University of the Air', a wireless University.

In 1969, the Open University was formed, and by this time most homes in the UK had a television, and so the lessons were broadcast both on the radio and on the TV, typically in during the night or early hours of the morning, after the daytime transmissions had finished. In the mid 70's, the VHS video recorder was introduced, and learners were able to record and then watch the lessons during the day.

The distance teaching and learning methods of the Open University were a success, the reasons why are outlined below:-

1) They were a blend of proper lectures that were recorded in a television studio so they could be watched on the television. After the introduction of the VCR, students could watch a lecture more than once to ensure they fully understood it.
2) Students met a tutor in their local area for face to face discussions.
3) Once a year they went on a Summer School at 'a real University' which boosted morale and gave them the confidence and prestige that other University students gained from being at University.
4) Learners had structures e-lessons.

The Open University can be described as a blend of teaching and learning techniques. Notice that 1), 2) and 3) all have visual elements to them. Consider if you are in a classroom and was blindfolded, your learning would be impaired. Also 2) and 3) have interactive communication.

ICT, Learn Direct

In the 1990's people in education were talking about ICT (Information and Communications Technology). ICT was introduced in schools; it was successful because in addition to structured e-learning, teaching was again a blend that incorporated a 'visual' aspect, together with face to face interaction with peers and teachers.

In 2000, in response to the New Labour concept of a University for Industry, LearnDirect was launched; it was initially successful because (due to limitations with internet connections and computers) many learners attended Learn Direct Centres and had a blend that incorporated face to face tuition.

As Learn Direct moved away from this teaching blend with an interactive visual element (with real people) and moved towards e-learning without the 'Learn Direct Centres' it became noticeably less successful.

The e-University -a massive failure

In the year 2000, the Open University was a success, ICT assisted e-learning was a success and Learn Direct with e-learning was working well. There seemed no reason why an e-University should not be a success, however it proved to be a massive failure and was abandoned in 2004 after wasting 62 million pounds.

In retrospect, the decline that subsequently happened in Learn Direct was due to it moving away from the blend of e-learning that incorporated the more expensive, visually interactive and staffed Learn Direct centres. In 2011 Learn Direct was sold. The e-University was a failure for the same reason, it was not a sufficient blend of 'visually connected learning', it was just e-learning.

Why e-learning without the visual blend failed:-

Learners became and are accustomed to receiving vast amount of information from the internet. They learn efficiently from 'hyper-short bursts of audio and visual information'. The lengths of video trailers are good examples of the optimum lengths of 'hyper short bursts of learning material', because it has been established that information from movie trailers is absorbed efficiently.

YouTube identified the ideal length of videos for maximum effect, and preferred videos that were five minutes and shorter.


Many e-learning projects have failed, some of them have failed spectacularly. The successful e-learning projects had a blend of visual and 'people' interaction; this can now be achieved with today's 'Connected Visuals'.

There now exists the technology for content rich, entertaining, interactive online e-learning software. Cost is less than half that of other forms of learning / training and is ideally suited to blend with or replace 'in-house' company training.

The Author, Dave Maratos has previously been involved in Learning Systems for University Engineering Foundation Year students and is extremely interested in online e-learning software

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