What is eLearning? eLearning Explained

Published on 
November 9, 2020
Updated on 
November 13, 2020
What is eLearning? eLearining explained article cover photo

You may have seen the term “eLearning” (or e-Learning) floating around online, especially in relation to its nearly $500 billion market size.

Since the eLearning market is so big (and it’s only growing due to the remote push caused by COVID-19), you should probably know what eLearning is.

eLearning, or “electronic learning,” refers to learning experiences that are delivered electronically. These experiences include videos, podcasts, interactive web programs, and more. eLearning is often accessed via internet-connected devices, such as computers, phones, or tablets. 

As you can see, this definition is quite broad. eLearning can include educational YouTube videos, virtual lectures, mobile language-learning applications, digital simulations, and so much more.

Therefore, when someone says “eLearning,” they could be referring to a large variety of learning experiences. However, depending on the context within which the term “eLearning” is used, you can usually get a pretty good idea of what that eLearning may look like.

eLearning by Industry

As previously mentioned, eLearning looks very different depending on the context in which you see it mentioned.

Digital Academies and Courses by Entrepreneurs

Digital entrepreneurs from many industries and niches make money by selling their knowledge in the form of information products. 

For example, personal trainers may create paid, online weight-loss bootcamps. Designers create design academies to teach other professionals important skills. Freelancers create courses that teach people how to land their first clients. And so on and so forth.

These products often come in the form of video-based eLearning programs with accompanying checklists and worksheets. They may include live components, such as weekly question-and-answer or coaching sessions.

People usually host these video-based infoproducts on platforms like Teachable, Thinkific, or Kajabi. These tools enable creators to easily handle payments, coupon codes, affiliate links, and more.

So, when you hear eLearning in the context of digital “courses for sale,” there’s a pretty good chance that it’s a series of talking-head videos with some supporting downloadable material.

Higher Education eLearning

Higher education institutions often refer to their distance-education programs as eLearning. 

University eLearning programs all the universities to enroll students from all around the country or the world, and students can earn a degree or certificate without ever setting foot on campus.

In many cases, university professors create these online courses by recording lectures or adding text-based content and other resources to a Learning Management System (LMS). Common university LMSs include Canvas and Blackboard. 

Professors may or may not have the support of instructional designers when creating their courses.

Some university eLearning departments have much higher budgets for their eLearning offerings. These departments may have entire teams of eLearning and multimedia specialists to create video-based degree and certification programs.

However, high production-value eLearning in higher education is not the norm. eLearning in the higher education context is often created by professors and delivered via Canvas or Blackboard.

K-12 eLearning

In the COVID-19 era, most eLearning in the K-12 space features a teacher who teaches a class via virtual meeting software.

This eLearning mimics the typical school day, but students attend class lectures via virtual meeting software instead of an actual classroom.

Some K-12 institutions and programs provide eLearning opportunities that do not require students to attend a virtual class. 

In these cases, the students earn class credits remotely by watching recorded lectures or videos and completing slide-based modules that include interactive content and practice opportunities. Teachers are often available to grade assignments, hold students accountable, and provide support.

Corporate and Enterprise eLearning

In the business world, eLearning usually comes in the form of interactive, slide-based web experiences.

These experiences may include video content, but they also include text-based slides and interactivity (such as clicking an icon to reveal information, selecting a response to a question, or deciding which content to view next).

Instructional designers and eLearning developers create these experiences in rapid authoring tools, such as Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate.

Therefore,corporate eLearning often comes in the form of a self-paced, slide-based experience. Imagine a PowerPoint slide deck with additional interactivity added on top of it.

View examples of corporate eLearning projects in my portfolio. 

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous eLearning

There are two types of eLearning: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous eLearning refers to online learning that’s delivered in real-time, often with a facilitator or instructor present, and asynchronous eLearning refers to eLearning that can be taken at any time of day.

Synchronous eLearning Examples

The most common form of synchronous eLearning is virtual instructor-led training (vILT). vILT features a facilitator or instructor who teaches an audience in real-time.

Imagine a teacher hosting a live class session with 20 students present or a facilitator showing a team of employees how to complete a specific task via a virtual meeting.

If the learning experience demands that people attend it at the same time, then it’s considered synchronous eLearning.

Asynchronous eLearning Examples

Asynchronous eLearning, or self-paced eLearning, refers to eLearning that people can take at any time they would like. This includes:

  • eLearning modules that people can access any time on an LMS
  • Recorded lectures that are available on-demand
  • A podcast that someone can listen to whenever they choose to

If the learning experience can be taken at any time of day (without relying on a live facilitator), then it is asynchronous (or self-paced) eLearning.

Blended eLearning

eLearning programs may include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous eLearning. This is considered blended eLearning.

For example, digital entrepreneurs may give their students access to an entire library of recorded video content (asynchronous), but they may also host weekly Q&A sessions where people can dive deeper into specific concepts (synchronous). 

Corporate eLearning initiatives may assign a self-paced eLearning module (asynchronous) for people to complete before attending a virtual practice session with a facilitator (synchronous).

If the eLearning experience makes use of both self-paced and live components, then it’s considered a blended eLearning experience.

eLearning Benefits

Due to the electronic nature of eLearning, it does come with a suite of benefits.

One of the biggest benefits of eLearning is that it can be distributed to a global audience at scale. As long as someone has an internet connection, they can participate in the learning experience.

This also leads to major cost savings: organizations do not need to deal with travel costs to bring their facilitator and learner together — instead, they can set up a virtual meeting space in a matter of minutes.

Asynchronous eLearning saves even more money. It can be more focused and concise. Rather than a full-day workshop, you may be able to achieve the same results with several 20-minute eLearning modules. This not only saves on travel costs, but it also results in less time away from the job.

The other big selling point of asynchronous eLearning is that once you build it, people can learn from it as long as the content remains accurate. 

This results in an up-front investment that can pay off many times over, whereas instructor-led learning experiences happen once and then they’re over for good.

Finally, if you're concerned about the environment, then eLearning may seem even more appealing. This is because eLearning experiences are more sustainable than their face-to-face counterparts. When people do not need to travel to the learning experience and deal with paper, it results in far fewer carbon emissions.

Overall, if your audience has access to technology and the internet, then eLearning brings many benefits along with it.

Custom vs. Off-the-Shelf eLearning

The custom eLearning vs. off-the-shelf eLearning consideration deals mostly with eLearning in the business world.

Some businesses choose to purchase a library of off-the-shelf eLearning content to train their employees, whereas others commission an eLearning designer or agency to design a completely custom solution.

Off-the-shelf options are usually cheaper and available instantly, but they can come with some significant tradeoffs. 

For eLearning to be effective, it should be tailored to the needs of the people taking it. If the off-the-shelf offerings are designed specifically for your audience in mind, then they may be a good option.

However, if the off-the-shelf offering is generic and broad, then it may not be a worthy investment.

If you need to help people perform a specific job role better (or you need content that is very organization- or topic-specific), then it’s likely a good idea to commission a custom eLearning solution.

Learn more about me and my freelance eLearning design practice.

Is eLearning Effective?

Asking “is eLearning effective?” is similar to asking “is school effective?”. The answer, of course, is that it depends.

When it comes to corporate eLearning, effective eLearning helps people perform their jobs better. Much of the eLearning in this space is information-heavy without any meaningful practice opportunities (similar to a textbook), and this leads to eLearning that is ineffective.

However, there is nothing inherent to eLearning that makes it effective or ineffective.

It falls on the person commissioning the project — as well as the instructional designer, facilitator, or instructor — to ensure that the content is designed and delivered in a way that it helps meet its intended goals.

Designing Effective eLearning

If you’d like to learn more about designing effective eLearning, then you should check out some of the many instructional design articles that I’ve published on this site.

I’ve also recorded a video listing my top eLearning tips, as well as an entire YouTube channel dedicated to eLearning and instructional design content.

If you prefer full-length books, then check out the best eLearning books for instructional designers.


In conclusion, eLearning is a great way to deliver learning experiences at scale. It can be an effective medium for teaching people new skills and knowledge, but only when designed well. 

If you or your organization is in need of well-designed eLearning, then please feel free to reach out for a quote.

Otherwise, if you’re a professional in the eLearning space and would like to join a community of like-minded peers, then please consider joining my eLearning Slack community.

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