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Looking Back: Refelecting on the History of e-Learning

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

This week we celebrated Memorial Day here in the United States. Mainly it is intended as a time to honor the men and women of the armed forces who gave their lives in the protection of freedom.  And in the early part of this century, at least here in Southern Illinois, it also fostered a tradition of honoring our ancestors in general by decorating cemeteries with floral bouquets gathered from home gardens. 

Unfortunately, this appears to be a tradition falling by the wayside, as the ease and longevity of plastic flowers take precedence over living flowers.  But I think it's really important to be aware of the traditions of our lives and our livelihoods, and so spent Monday morning gathering flowers for the graves of my grandparents and my brother and contemplated how their lives have had a guiding influence on my own.

Back at work, that contemplative moodMemorial Day has made me think similarly about the roots of early efforts at e-learning and what it should mean to us now. With the emphasis always on new tools and expanded technologies, I find many are surprised to realize that this is a field with traditions and research stretching back almost 50 years. 

I had the privilege of starting my work in e-learning at the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where the PLATO system originated.  PLATO was one of the initial and arguably the most successful of several pioneering research projects in the sixties to explore the use of computers in teaching.  And I was reminded of several key insights that that were at the core of the PLATO system that are still overlooked.

A few of these insights:

  • E-learning authoring requires a sophistication of authoring that must be both powerful and accessible.  PLATO lessons were written using a specialized programming language called Tutor that was similar to other structured programming languages of the time, but that incorporated several key functions around creating interactivity.  There were a lot of shortcomings of Tutor, but already it was clear that the ability to create interactive experiences was a differentiator between standard programming and tools to create learning. 

    Now we are using an entirely different generation of authoring tools, but in general, they are inadequate because they don't place creating interactivity at the core of the tool.  Flash is an impressive tool, but what it does easily is create compelling animated sequencing; the actual interactivity is added through complex programming in ActionScript tacked on awkwardly to a timeline model that with which it doesn't match entirely.  PowerPoint provides powerful presentation structures, but interactivity is difficult to build beyond the basic gestural level.  Tools in between seem to focus more on asking test questions than creating interactive learning experiences. 

    We're still in quest of that elusive tool that enables designers to create learning modules where the interactive experience is the core element. (I have high hopes that Allen Interactions Zebra development project will move us much closer to that possibility.)

  • Linear paging structures are too limited to realize the immersive learning opportunities capable with e-learning.  The engineers who developed PLATO realized early on that the scrolling CRT monitors would not do for learning.  One can't create a meaningful experience with extended significance if images on the screen have no permanence; one needs to be able to change part of the screen (and not necessarily the bottom most part) and leave other parts the same.  This insight led to the development of plasma panel technology (didn't know those plasma panels were a direct result of e-learning research, did you?) to be able to have screens where any pixel was individually addressable without necessarily having to change anything else on the screen.  This enables a design concept called "screen inertia" which is a critical component of helping learners focus on critical elements of an experience.  This was so clear years ago, yet so many of today's designs ignore this insight.

  • Learning happens best when supported by a community of teachers and learners.  Unimpeded communication between learners and between learners and teachers was critical feature of PLATO. Long before current email systems, discussion boards, and instant messaging, PLATO supported amazingly full-featured versions of these communication methods and integrated them, along with Halls of Fame and other shared resources to support learning.  Even so, implementations of e-learning where online communication is fully integrated into instruction is relatively rare.

Certainly we've come a long way since the early days of CBT, but it would serve us well to look back and be aware of the vast efforts that have fueled this field of online learning over the years. Many insights are really valuable and worth preserving in our continuing efforts. Perhaps, then, we could make bigger strides forward instead of seeming to go through cycles of rediscovering the same things over and over.