Virtual learning environment

Apart from the classical arguments of cost and consistency, e-learning has also made education accessible to students, especially in the higher education space. One can work in one city and get undergraduate qualification from a university in a different city. For example, if an employee is based in India, he could register for a course with an online university in the US or in the UK and have access to the same quality of content that a fulltime student has. The best of the world’s educational content and opportunities are available to an increasing number of people, especially in developing and underdeveloped countries.

Unlike classroom education, e-learning can cater to different learning styles and promote collaboration among students (include employees studying online for additional qualifications) from different countries and cultures.

Evolution of E-learning

The CBT (Computer Based Training programs) represented the first phase of e-learning which had a heavy dose of graphics, audio, and video. These were mostly self paced learning modules and learners didn’t have any opportunity to interact with instructors or other classmates. The internet dramatically changed everything. Numerous e-learning vendors jumped at the chance to define the market and gain first mover advantage.

The early days of web based learning were marked mostly by simple page turners. Today, with better bandwidth, web based learning has also started incorporating audio, video, and 3D animation. Moreover, technology has enabled the use of more interaction, including elements such as chats, discussion rooms and multi player educational games and simulations. The latest tools are more engaging, soothing to the eye, are simpler to program, can track student/executive learning patterns and adjust delivery based on the needs of one or many

The history of e-learning can be traced through these stages: multimedia era (1984-1993), web infancy (1994-1999), next generation web (2000-2005) and mobile learning. She feels that organizations must empower their employees with just in time learning and make use of the power of mobile solutions through PDA (palm device assistants) and cell phones.

In higher education, there is a growing tendency to create a virtual learning environment (VLE) in which all aspects of a course are handled through a consistent user interface throughout the institution. Several universities, as well as newer online colleges, especially in the US, have begun to offer a select set of academic degree and certificate programs through the internet at many levels and disciplines. Some of these programs do require students to attend orientation sessions in colleges, but most of the course content is delivered online. Several universities also offer online student support services, such as online advice and registration, e-counseling, online textbook purchase and student newspapers.

While there is no substitute for effective and organized classroom teaching, e-learning’s popularity would increase if it is oriented more effective short term specialized courses with a clear objectives. An e-learning course that helps score well in a mathematics test will be more marketable than a general course in mathematics. Similarly, a short course on Microsoft Excel will be more attractive than a general course in computers. E-learning has the potential to overcome the non-availability of adequately qualified teachers in rural India. Live online tutoring, streaming videos and virtual classrooms are some of the solutions that e-learning can offer to these problems.

The retail e-learning segment has always been relatively small and has been struggling, but may see some exponential growth over the next few years. The growth of this segment would signify, in a sense, an acceptance of the concept of e-learning, so it would indeed be a defining moment for the industry if the retail sector takes wings in all customer groups.

The e-learning scenario in India is still growing and at an experimental stage. Traditional mindsets are beginning to change with the corporate sector leading the way in embracing technology based learning avenues. Many schools have started augmenting teacher-led programs with content rich e-learning modules. Government initiatives are not far behind either.

The major hindrance to the acceptance of e-learning can be attributed to the Indian mindset that is more inclined to traditional classroom learning. The visibility of e-learning is currently limited to IT and educational CDs for children. With penetration and overall online accessibility increasing by leaps and bounds in the country, the future of e-learning looks promising, provided the organization of content and delivery is well structured.

Premium educational institutes such as IIM Bangalore have started executive MBA programs, which are partly e-learning driven. Symbiosis, Pune also offers courses through e-learning.

With the rapid pace of evolution in technology, competitive global economy, lack of skilled personnel and focus on knowledge management e-learning is here to stay. The flexibility of e-learning in terms of delivery media (laptops, mobile phones),type of courses (modules or smaller learning objects) and access (real time or self paced makes it an attractive option for learners. The future of e-learning lies in customizing content to suit the needs of individuals, organizations and communities (e.g.: the student community).

Replacing classroom teaching with the online format may not be the best option, as both have their strengths. In as much as the textbook, the classroom, the team project, and the individual assignment coexist in the learning context, e-learning can be added as another ingredient to the mix. If used judiciously, e-learning can ensure consistency, reduce costs and time, and enable a richer learning experience.