How E-learning Works

A SCUBA diver
Photo courtesy NOAA/Dept. of Commerce

The buoyancy and air supply equipment have been checked. All gauges are working correctly. The divemaster is directing you to the dive platform. It's sunny, but slightly windy, so the water is choppy. Your wet suit is on, and you have your fins in hand. You're diving from a small boat so you choose the seated backroll to enter the water. You place your fins on your feet, position yourself on the edge of the boat and check to make sure your tank bottom is extending out beyond the edge of the boat over the open water.

You turn on your air and place the regulator mouthpiece in your mouth. One hand holds your mask while the other holds your regulator. So far so good. Time to make the entry. You enter the water backward, reorient yourself and bob to the surface. While thinking about what you need to do next, you forget to move out of the way for your buddy to enter the water, and you get a warning from the divemaster. After moving back from the boat, you place the regulator mouthpiece in the water. You place it face-down to prevent free-flow. You then replace the regulator mouthpiece in your mouth and exhale to clear it. You carefully inhale to make sure it is completely cleared.


You adjust your buoyancy compensator (BC) to make yourself more buoyant while you wait for the others to enter the water. While you're waiting, you remember to clear your mask. Now the divemaster has signaled that it's time to descend. You vent your BC using the deflator valve and concentrate on breathing shallowly. You descend slowly down into the darkness. As you descend, you remember to exhale some air into your mask to prevent a mask squeeze. Your fins are still as you descend. A glance at your dive calculator shows you that you've passed the 15-foot mark. You're beginning to see some fish and other marine life. A large jellyfish glides past you.

You're finally at the bottom and see your buddy and some of the other divers, but something is wrong.

A bell chimes and a red box with white text flashes on your monitor. A synthesized female voice calmly reports, "You did not equalize the pressure in your ears by using either the Valsalva maneuver or the Frenzel maneuver. You have just ruptured your ear drums, which can also result in vertigo. Vertigo can be deadly when experienced underwater. Please return to the online training module, then try the simulation again."

This passage is an example of e-learning in a simulated electronic environment. E-learning, Computer-Based Training (CBT), Internet-Based Training (IBT), Web-Based Training (WBT) and a host of other names picked up along the way may be the wave of the learning future for people of all ages. Immersing yourself in a 3-D environment or simply interacting with characters or objects on the screen can be a very good way to learn a new skill. The popularity of online training has grown significantly since the early 1990s.

In this article, we'll visit the field of electronic learning, find out how it works and what makes it effective both from the learner's perspective and the training producer's perspective. We'll also take a look at the reality of e-learning by examining the technology from a company called OutStart. Its Trainersoft software helps to create e-learning modules using non-technical interfaces that allow almost anyone to get started very quickly.


What is E-learning?

E-learning is to classroom learning as cell phones are to a pay phone at the bus station.

At least it is in some ways. For instance, e-learning allows you to learn anywhere and usually at any time, as long as you have a properly configured computer. Cell phones allow you to communicate any time and usually anywhere, as long as you have a properly configured phone.


E-learning can be CD-ROM-based, Network-based, Intranet-based or Internet-based. It can include text, video, audio, animation and virtual environments. It can be a very rich learning experience that can even surpass the level of training you might experience in a crowded classroom. It's self-paced, hands-on learning.

The quality of the electronic-based training, as in every form of training, is in its content and its delivery. E-learning can suffer from many of the same pitfalls as classroom training, such as boring slides, monotonous speech, and little opportunity for interaction. The beauty of e-learning, however, is that new software allows the creation of very effective learning environments that can engulf you in the material. We'll use software from Trainersoft as an example to show you how the process works.

Levels of e-learning

E-learning falls into four categories, from the very basic to the very advanced. The categories are:

  • Knowledge databases -- While not necessarily seen as actual training, these databases are the most basic form of e-learning. You've probably seen knowledge databases on software sites offering indexed explanations and guidance for software questions, along with step-by-step instructions for performing specific tasks. These are usually moderately interactive, meaning that you can either type in a key word or phrase to search the database, or make a selection from an alphabetical list.
  • Online support -- Online support is also a form of e-learning and functions in a similar manner to knowledge databases. Online support comes in the form of forums, chat rooms, online bulletin boards, e-mail, or live instant-messaging support. Slightly more interactive than knowledge databases, online support offers the opportunity for more specific questions and answers, as well as more immediate answers.
  • Asynchronous training -- This is e-learning in the more traditional sense of the word. It involves self-paced learning, either CD-ROM-based, Network-based, Intranet-based or Internet-based. It may include access to instructors through online bulletin boards, online discussion groups and e-mail. Or, it may be totally self-contained with links to reference materials in place of a live instructor.
  • Synchronous training -- Synchronous training is done in real-time with a live instructor facilitating the training. Everyone logs in at a set time and can communicate directly with the instructor and with each other. You can raise your cyber hand and even view the cyber whiteboard. It lasts for a set amount of time -- from a single session to several weeks, months or even years. This type of training usually takes place via Internet Web sites, audio- or video-conferencing, Internet telephony, or even two-way live broadcasts to students in a classroom.

Let's move on to how learning works.


The Psychology of Learning

Let's begin with what goes on in a person's head when they're learning. First, learning requires attention. Effective training grabs attention and holds it. Unfortunately, the neural systems in the brain that control attention and store information as memory get tired very quickly (in minutes). They need to rest every three to five minutes, or else they become much less responsive. They recover pretty quickly, but training has to work with this quick fatigue/boredom pattern for the person to learn efficiently.

Training that is patterned to move from one set to another provides the most effective learning model. The patterns those neural sets respond best to involve interweaving different types of information and using different areas of the brain. For example:


  1. Listening to a fact e.g. Flour, when mixed with eggs, can be kneaded into a dough and cut into shapes for pasta.
  2. Relating a concept to that fact e.g. Foods high in carbohydrates help the body generate energy.
  3. Visualizing the two together e.g. Sports teams need quick energy that can be provided by carbohydrates, so they often have a meal of pasta prior to games.

These systems are interrelated and work together to form memory (i.e. learning). The goal is to form memory in each neural system. Information designed in a way that moves from neural system to neural system creates more effective learning.

E-learning and Retention

Besides catering to these neural systems' needs, training should also incorporate other elements such as interaction, imagery and feedback.

E-learning can incorporate many elements that make learning new material, a new process or a new program more fun. Making learning more fun -- or interesting -- is what makes it more effective. Obviously, every type of training can't be turned into e-training, but many can with excellent results. The keys to successful e-learning include:

  • Varying the types of content -- Images, sounds and text work together to build memory in the brain and result in better retention of the material.
  • Creating interaction that engages the attention -- Games, quizzes and even manipulation of something on the screen creates more interest, which in turn builds better retention.
  • Providing immediate feedback -- E-learning courses can build in immediate feedback to correct misunderstood material. The more immediate the feedback the better, because each step of learning builds upon the previous step. If no feedback is given, then the next step may be building upon an incorrect interpretation.
  • Encouraging interaction with other e-learners and an e-instructor -- Chat rooms, discussion boards, instant messaging and e-mail all offer effective interaction for e-learners and do a good job of replacing classroom discussions. Building an online community significantly influences the success of online programs.

To incorporate these elements into training, Trainersoft developed simple tools that allow you to drop in animations, video or other media, and set special attributes for them such as:

  • Hot spots that link to another file or image
  • Transition effects
  • Pop-up questions
  • Audio responses to questions
  • Flash and Shockwave files
  • Javascripts
  • CGI (common gateway interface) scripts
  • Other effects that make objects react to the user's actions


E-learning lets you go through the course at your own pace. This helps avoid missed information in situations where you have to leave the course or you just don't catch what the instructor said.

E-learning courses offer user-controlled elements that aren't feasible in regular training classes. For example, differentiating the sound of an irregular heart beat from that of a regular heart beat by clicking on screen icons allows the learner to listen at their own pace and replay the sound as often as they like. This self-paced element helps make e-learning effective.

On the next page, we'll talk more about the interactive features of e-learning.


Interactive & Motivating E-learning

Students of all ages can take e-learning courses. Some courses focus on increasing job skills.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images


E-learning also offers interactivity. This type of interactivity can be in the form of simply clicking on appropriate responses to questions, clicking to animate an object or start a process, or dragging and dropping items to practice a skill.

Interactive games based on the training message are also very effective at improving learning. Now, you may be thinking of "Doom" or "Tomb Raider," but gaming in a training setting doesn't have to be quite that elaborate -- although it certainly can be!


Think about games where you go through a series of tasks, learning about the environment, and use tools you've discovered along the way. Those same techniques can be incorporated into many types of learning programs. Games can take you through an adventure in almost any type of scenario. Being able to explore, try, succeed or fail makes good training.

For example, you may be a human resources manager taking an e-course on hiring techniques. The course might include a series of video and audio segments that take you through the processes. Then a game would begin that takes you through those same processes where you make the decisions in a virtual world. Suppose in the interviewing section you asked a question that's not allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bells might go off and a simulated team of attorneys might whisk you off to a virtual jail! When you do rather than simply read or listen to something, you retain more of the information, and learning from mistakes is one of the best ways to ensure you don't make those mistakes again. Think of it as cyber role playing.

This type of game scenario could be easily created in Trainersoft by using photos or graphics, and applying hot spots that link to video clips. Once the video clip has played, a multiple-choice quiz box could pop up that asks the user what he should do next. The options for answers could be linked to individual video clips that play out that scenario. Once the scene has played, the results of the choice (i.e. whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision) could then be revealed as either a talking head video, an audio response or simply a text box. This scene could be as simple or as intricate as you want to make it.


Being motivated to learn is half the battle. Knowing the course you're taking is going to have some "fun" elements like video, audio, animation and the "gaming" scenarios we mentioned above creates more interest and curiosity in learning. This, too, leads to better retention and faster learning.

Other motivating factors with e-learning are the conveniences that it offers, such as being able to go through the course any time and anywhere (almost). It's much easier to work training into a busy schedule when you don't have to take two days off to travel and then sit in a classroom.

Other e-learning elements that beat out the classroom scene

Besides the bigger issues like interaction, control of the pace, and motivation, e-learning can readily put to use the information that researchers have been studying for the past 30 or more years. These studies have identified things that can greatly affect memory and recall. Some of the key research found significant improvements in recall when:

  • using colors and specific color combinations
  • combining images with words
  • combining sounds (or voice or music) with images
  • using multiple types of media
  • using layouts that flow with the natural movement of the eye

On the next page, we'll talk more about the benefits of e-learning.


Benefits of E-learning

E-learning has definite benefits over traditional classroom training. While the most obvious are the flexibility and the cost savings from not having to travel or spend excess time away from work, there are also others that might not be so obvious. For example:

  • It's less expensive to produce -- Using Trainersoft's authoring software to produce your own asynchronous training programs, e-training is virtually free once you reach the break-even point. Synchronous programs will have continued costs associated with the instructor managing the class, but will still be lower than traditional courses.
  • It's self-paced -- Most e-learning programs can be taken when needed. The "books" that you set up using Trainersoft create a module-based design allowing the learner to go through smaller chunks of training that can be used and absorbed for a while before moving on.
  • It moves faster -- According to an article by Jennifer Salopek in "Training and Development Magazine," e-learning courses progress up to 50 percent faster than traditional courses. This is partly because the individualized approach allows learners to skip material they already know and understand and move onto the issues they need training on.
  • It provides a consistent message -- E-learning eliminates the problems associated with different instructors teaching slightly different material on the same subject. For company-based training, this is often critical.
  • It can work from any location and any time - -E-learners can go through training sessions from anywhere, usually at anytime. This Just-In-Time (JIT) benefit can make learning possible for people who never would have been able to work it into their schedules prior to the development of e-learning. (If you manage a corporate learning program, however, be careful about requesting that workers learn on their own time from home.)
  • It can be updated easily and quickly -- Online e-learning sessions are especially easy to keep up-to-date because the updated materials are simply uploaded to a server. CD-ROM-based programs may be slightly more expensive to update and distribute, but still come out cheaper than reprinting manuals and retraining instructors.
  • It can lead to increased retention and a stronger grasp on the subject -- This is because of the many elements that are combined in e-learning to reinforce the message, such as video, audio, quizzes, interaction, etc. There is also the ability to revisit or replay sections of the training that might not have been clear the first time around. Try that in a crowded auditorium!
  • It can be easily managed for large groups of students -- Trainersoft Manager allows corporate training directors, HR managers and others to keep track of the course offerings, schedule or assign training for employees and track their progress and results. Managers can review a student's scores and identify any areas that need additional training.

There are many advantages to e-learning, and even the potential disadvantages (i.e. boring text-based courses, technophobia, loneliness) can be alleviated with a properly designed course. Let's move on now to how to plan a good course.


Planning Your E-learning Course

The most important step in building any training program is planning. This means rebuilding existing materials for a cyber-landscape. The worst experience anyone can encounter in an e-learning environment is finding traditional written training materials simply moved to the computer screen. Talk about a high snooze-factor! And this is not only boring -- it's ineffective training and a waste of time for pretty much everyone involved. What Trainersoft focuses on is easily incorporating multimedia and interactive elements into every training program.

The first steps...

Before anything is put on paper, the audience for the training has to be determined. Once you know who you're talking to and what their skill levels are, you can then begin the long task of actually putting the training program together.


Next, you have to know what that audience should be able to do once the course is over that they couldn't do before. In other words, what are the objectives of the course? Working backward from your objectives will keep you on track. Also, make sure the audience knows those objectives right from the beginning. The "What's in it for me?" factor plays a role in training just as it does in many other areas of life and business. This is especially true for e-learning because leaving the class isn't the attention-drawing act of getting up and leaving a group, which tends to create a pause in the lecture and stares by fellow students. It's a simple mouse click.

The program should be designed with the delivery method in mind (i.e. Web-based, CD-ROM-based, Network-based) as well as the limitations of the users' hardware. (Again, know the audience.) Bandwidth will play a big part in the acceptance and success of a multimedia program on the Internet.

Organize, organize, organize

Break your content up into manageable chunks that are meaningful to your objectives.

Trainersoft's authoring tool allows you to organize your program into books, chapters and then pages within those chapters. This establishes a very clean and simple way to keep your content broken into the manageable "chunks" you need, as well as arrange those chunks within the overall program. The better organized your materials, the easier it will be for the student to navigate. Keep in mind that each module shouldn't exceed about 20 minutes. This equals about one hour of classroom-based training.

Navigation is another critical element of e-learning. Difficult navigation creates frustration and often encourages the student to leave the course (remember that "one click" escape). Setting up the navigation and look of the program is an important step and shouldn't be done without a lot of thought and testing. Trainersoft provides a template-based solution that includes the basic built-in navigation tools, but also allows you to customize or create your own navigation controls.


One method for organizing your materials, particularly if you plan to include any games, is to create a storyboard of the complete program. Creating a storyboard involves simply drawing blocks on a page that represent the frames (pages/screens) of your course. This will help you visualize the sections of your program and identify kinks in the flow. Do this before you begin committing text to computer.

If you don't think a storyboard is necessary, at least create a good outline of the material. Any of these steps toward organization will speed up the process once you begin creating the course in its electronic format.

On the next page, we'll talk about integrating media into your course.


E-learning: Incorporating Text

With e-learning options, students can learn at their own pace.
William B. Plowman/Getty Images

Once you have your outline and storyboard (or at least a cocktail napkin with your plan of attack written on it), begin to think about how to work interaction, animation, video and audio into your program.

Vary the presentation of information into formats that force different parts of the brain (or actually different neural systems) to go to work and store the information in the form of memory.


This can be done, for example, by presenting information in one form (e.g. text on the screen stating a fact), then including an audio or video clip of something related that fact, then using the information to help the student create his or her own visualization of the fact. This last step could come in the form of a quiz that asks questions forcing the student to use reasoning to combine the two facts in order to come up with the correct answer. Or, it could be turned into a game that takes the student through a process that draws into play the two related bits of information.

Trainersoft's tools were developed specifically to address the idea of creating courses using this infrastructure. This type of process helps the brain weave together those bits of information that were stored in different neural systems for better retention and recall of the information -- in other words, more effective training.

Incorporating text

Text isn't necessarily seen as multimedia, but it is an important element in e-learning. The problem with many e-learning programs is that the developers have simply taken their existing text-based teaching and put it on the computer screen. The interactivity of the program consists of reading text and then clicking on an arrow to proceed to the next page. You have to use some text, but you can do it responsibly. Keep it to no more than six lines per screen and intersperse it with other elements. Also, don't overdo your text animations.

Trainersoft allows you to have text appear and disappear, or simply move to another location on the screen, within pre-set time increments or upon a click or rollover of the mouse. Using this type of animation may make more sense in many training instances. For example, you might have an audio clip that ends with a question posed to the student. If the student doesn't respond within a set amount of time, text could pop up that gives a hint or instructs the student to do something else.

Trainersoft also includes a function that allows you to index all of the text within the course. This makes it easy for a student to search for specific terms or formulas without having to go back through every screen.

On the next page, we'll talk about incorporating video.


E-learning: Integrating Media and Interactivity

Incorporating audio

The power of audio may often be overlooked, but the combination of written and spoken words does have a big impact on recall and retention. To bring audio into your course with Trainersoft simply means dropping the clip onto the screen and setting its controls. The hard part is determining where to use audio, and knowing how much is too much. Audio, just like other media files, requires good bandwidth if you're producing a Web-based program. This screen from Trainersoft 7 shows the media controls you can set when incorporating audio into your program.

Incorporating video

A paper by Rachel Ellis and Mark Childs, published in the Journal of Educational Media in 1999, discussed the The Broadnet Project, which was a study on the effectiveness of video as a learning tool in online multimedia modules. Their conclusions and recommendations based on the analysis of comments and perceptions of the trainees and the producers were:


  • Use video stories to put the subject into its context of use.
  • Use video clips followed by questions to encourage active participation from trainees and build on existing knowledge.
  • Ensure that these clips have the information required to answer the questions.
  • Limit the length of talking head video clips and use them to elaborate on specific points.

Building interactivity into the experience was also discussed. Having optional endings for scenes that the student can select based on the training they have had so far begins to incorporate some of the gaming aspects we discussed earlier. Students could go through portions of learning material, then begin a video story that they control through selecting actions that create a scenario. Their choices would be graded based on the correct actions.

For example, going back to our human resources manager example, the interview session could include three different choices for questions. When the student makes a selection, the video then plays out that scenario. They could progress until they chose incorrectly and had to face the consequences.

By relating to characters on the screen and being able to control their "destinies," students can learn from mistakes that would be too costly to make in the real world.

Trainersoft supports streaming media, which allows the student to see the video (or hear the audio) immediately. Rather than waiting for the complete file to download, the student hears it as it is "streamed" to his or her computer. This only applies to Web or intranet-based training. There are, however, hybrid possibilities that could include links to the Internet for streaming media or other training media. This might be beneficial if that portion of the training is likely to change and need updates frequently. By putting that portion of the training on the Web, updating the files is easier than recreating and distributing new CD-ROMs.

On the next page, we'll talk about using animation in your e-learning course.


Using Animation in E-learning Courses

Incorporating animation

Animated graphic elements are great to use in training. They're fun to watch, and can get a message across that words or audio (or even video in some instances) cannot. Animation is another element, however, that has to be used appropriately. While animations don't typically require the bandwidth that video does, they still can slow down a Web-based program.

Trainersoft provides some tools to aid in creating animations and even some video. SmartCap is a Trainersoft tool that can be used in software or other computer-screen-type training. It can capture a series of screen movements and export those movements to a video. For example, you could show how to select a specific menu, select the menu item, enter specific information and then see the effects on the screen. Each step, or action, is actually an image that would be converted into an animated video.


Click here to view an example of a video created with SmartCap. The example will open a second window in your browser. To return to this article close the example window.

You can animate almost any graphic image or text you put on the page. This can include buttons that play specific sounds when clicked, or even that change to another image when the mouse moves over them. This is known as a rollover. You've probably seen this type of effect on Web pages. Rollovers can actually do more than just alter an image -- they can bring in another path or choice for the student.

For example, suppose you're creating a game that requires the student to enter an office, find a specific document, then proceed to use the information within that document to perform some action. You can begin with a background photo of an office. Within the photo you could have several "hot spots" that have rollover effects. By moving the mouse over the file cabinet, the student might find a file he needs to proceed. The student can then click on that file, which would take him to the next screen, which shows the information in the file. By mousing over (or clicking) on something within that information, the student might find the key needed to move to the next step of the game.

The possibilities for animations and interactivity are only limited by your imagination.

Incorporating quizzes and tests

Interspersing the course with quizzes that pop up after material has been presented offers good feedback and reinforcement for learning. In most learning situations, the more immediate the feedback, the better -- it's the building effect of learning.

Inserting questions and quizzes using Trainersoft amounts to selecting "Question" from the "Insert" menu and then deciding what type of question you want it to be. Inserting multiple choice, multiple-multiple choice, true-or-false, matching or fill-in-the-blank questions is simple, and feedback can be given immediately after the question is answered. The feedback can be in the form of an audio response or text response.

The answers to these questions can be tracked and used to compute the student's final score and grade for the course. As a course administrator, you can look back and see any areas that caused difficulty and reassign those areas for additional training.


E-learning Tips

Certain universities, such as UCLA, make it easy for students to take online courses even while on campus.
© Lara Jo Regan/Liaison

Here are some highlights of what we've discussed in this workshop, along with some additional notes and guidelines for developing your online learning adventures.

  • Technology requirements -- Don't forget to investigate the hardware, software and bandwidth your audience uses before you begin planning and developing your program.
  • Page file size -- Keep your pages to 40 kilobytes or less for online Web training. The magic number appears to be about 15 seconds for the maximum time users will wait for a page to load.
  • Course navigation -- Make sure your navigation tools are intuitive. Include links to "help," an online community, and glossaries or other references.
  • Modules -- Make sure your course is broken down into manageable sections that the student can get through in 20 minutes or less.
  • Fonts -- Keep your fonts simple. TIP: San serif fonts like Arial and Helvetica are easier to read on screen. Also, remember that the font you choose must be on the user's computer system or a substitute font will be used. This can cause some changes to your text layouts that could affect the clarity of the message. Arial is a common font that will probably be available to almost everyone.
  • Colors -- Make sure you use contrasting colors for backgrounds and fonts. Overusing complex coloring such as gradients may also slow the program down.
  • Quality -- Keep the quality of your graphics, videos and audio at a consistent level.
  • Text -- Keep your text to no more than six lines per screen.
  • Interaction -- Remember to involve the student through the use of interactive elements, but make sure the action builds the message rather than detracts from it.
  • Patterned teaching -- Remember to work varied aspects, examples and related facts into the content of the course to keep those neural systems on their toes.
  • Feedback -- Make sure feedback is given after each quiz section.
  • Multimedia -- Don't use media simply for the sake of using it. Make sure it applies to the training in a logical manner and reinforces the information.
  • Blended learning environments -- If you're having a hard time with the idea of completely trashing your classroom training environment, remember you can always combine e-learning with the more traditional methods you're more accustomed to. This blended environment can also be an effective way to provide training, and might have better initial acceptance.

Now that we've discussed how to create an e-learning course, we'll talk about actually finding e-learning courses, starting with those offered by colleges.


E-learning and College Courses

With online courses, soldiers stationed overseas can complete their coursework.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

E-learning has changed the college experience for many students. Rather than sitting through college courses and taking notes, tech-savvy Net Generation students are taking advantage of online classes and other forms of online learning. Schools are responding by looking at ways to combine the convenience of e-learning through online courses with traditional classes for a blended or hybrid approach.

Colleges have offered e-learning opportunities for longer than you may think. In 1983, Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., began offering online courses for credit. In 2006-2007, the school had 11,020 students enrolled in 863 credit-granting online courses ranging from nursing and law to computer science and oceanography [source: U.S. News E-Learning Guide and Nova Southwestern University].

While it may be one of the oldest, Nova Southeastern doesn't have the largest number of students taking online courses. The University of Phoenix topped the list in 2006-2007 with 196,140 students taking 770 online courses, followed by the University of Maryland-University College (UMUC) with 40,009 students in 691 courses [source: U.S. News E-Learning Guide].

Students at UMUC can either take traditional classes or, in many cases, sign up for an online class or opt to complete a degree online. These students also receive 24-hour library access and technical support. The flexibility of online classes has allowed some students to pursue studies under difficult circumstances.

A Tulane University senior, for instance, signed up for online classes at UMUC when Tulane closed temporarily after Hurricane Katrina. And, while stationed in Iraq, an Army captain has completed online classes toward an MBA at UMUC, which has served U.S. troops worldwide for 60 years [sources: University of Maryland University College and University of Maryland University College].

Even on campuses which focus less on e-learning, the technology has crept into everyday education. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. college students, or almost 3.5 million students in all, took at least one online course in fall 2006, according to a survey of 2,500 colleges by the Babson Survey Research Group and the Alfred P. Sloan Consortium.

The survey also shows that use of online courses grew by nearly 10 percent over a year earlier and has doubled over five years. Yet while 67 percent of higher education institutions provide online offerings, just one-third of these institutions account for 75 percent of online enrollments [source: The Sloan Consortium].

E-learning classes can be asynchronous, with instructor and students interacting occasionally via chat, messaging or e-mail, and work submitted online -- or synchronous, with students and the instructor online at the same time to communicate directly and share information. While testing for some classes is done online, schools often still want tests taken in person at a physical site to ensure security and the identity of the test taker [source: Software Secure].

Even traditional classes can have a touch of e-learning. The professor, for example, may offer podcasts of lectures that students can download and review, or an instructor may be available to answer questions immediately outside class via chat, text messaging or e-mail.

Go to the next page to learn more about how you can find and take e-learning courses.

Finding and Taking E-learning Courses

Students can take online courses wherever they are like this NYU student .
Mario Tama/Getty Images

E-learning is readily available, whether you're already taking college courses or not. Let's take a closer look at how you can find and take advantage of online learning opportunities like online classes. This e-learning process is easier than you may think.

If you're already enrolled at a college, the process is very easy. Just check your school's online course catalog to see which online courses you can take. If you're looking to enroll at a college or take some courses, there are plenty of online resources that you can access without leaving your home computer.

The U.S. News E-Learning Guide provides links to 2,800 colleges and universities with online courses, and offers information to online learners, connecting them to 169 schools offering online learning.

Both sites can help you learn more about online learning -- and both offer interactive searches allowing you to see what courses or subject areas are available online from which schools. You could, for example, search for all online degrees or courses offered at George Washington University, or you could search for any school offering online nursing courses.

As you hunt for a school, you'll want to avoid so-called "diploma mills" that award worthless degrees. How can you recognize these organizations? Here are some suggestions from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission:

  • Make sure the school is accredited. This means having met the standards required by a known college accrediting board, such as the Council for Higher Education. A diploma mill may claim to be accredited but not actually be. The U.S. Department of Education lists accredited colleges and universities at
  • Pay attention to the school name. Diploma mills sometimes use names that sound like those of legitimate schools, so research "sound-alike" names carefully online.
  • Be wary of offers that make completing a course or earning a degree seem too easy. This could be the offer of a degree for a flat fee, one that you can get in a few days or weeks or one that doesn't require studying, exams or attendance.

[source: Federal Trade Commission].

Once you've selected a course and school, make sure you have the required technology. For an online class at the University of Massachusetts, for example, you'll need a personal computer with 256 MB RAM, an Internet connection (with DSL or broadband cable) and an e-mail account [source: University of Massachusetts].

Also check the school's Web site for information about what you can expect in an online class. UMassOnline courses, for example, include exercises, projects and collaborative assignments. They feature audio lectures, photo materials, discussions, chat rooms, readings, illustrations and video conferencing. You interact with the professor and other students primarily through e-mail and online forums. At schools including UMassOnline and UMUC, you can even "test drive" a sample online course from the school Web site.

Finally, you'll need to register, which you usually can do online. But keep in mind that online classes generally follow the same schedule as the school's traditional classes. If you decide to take a class in October, for example, you'll need to check available classes and wait to register at the right time for the winter or spring session.

Net Generation students know e-learning goes beyond the personal computer. Keep reading to learn about e-learning opportunities that use MP3 players, smartphones, podcasts or blogs.

E-learning Tools

Many professors are now offering their classroom lectures as podcasts.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Think of e-learning and you probably envision students using computers to take online classes. But online learning can be much more than simply studying on a laptop in a dorm room. Today's e-earning tools go beyond computers to include MP3 players, podcasts, blogs and more. Let's see how these forms of e-learning technology are being used.

Net generation students are well versed in technology, often arriving on campus adept at communicating by text message, e-mail and message board and armed with laptops, MP3 players, smartphones and PDAs. Many have years of experience with online social networks, blogging and downloading music and video. They're looking to apply their technology and skills to learning, and schools are finding ways to meet those needs with online courses and hybrids that bring new technology to traditional teaching.

Yes, these students can take online classes on their personal computers, but they also can:

  • Download podcasts of course lectures and professors' audio study notes to their PDAs, smartphones or MP3 players to review wherever and whenever they have time.
  • Check and copy information from the professor's daily or weekly blog, including the course syllabus, assignment changes, study notes and other important information.
  • E-mail or text message study partners to set up study sessions and get answers to each other's questions about the material they're studying.
  • Send instant messages to professors with quick questions or to set up a time to talk more extensively by phone.
  • Log in to an online forum or visit a private chat room to discuss the topics being studied with the professor and other students in the class.
  • Take notes, photos or video with an iPod or smartphone during lab experiments or in the field to use later as part of papers, presentations or test preparation.
  • Bring work home from campus, share information for a collaborative project or submit a project to a professor with a USB flash drive.
  • Buy and use educational software available for PDAs to review the subject they're studying.
  • Complete written, video or presentation assignments and hand them in via e-mail to the professor.
  • Log in with a secure password to check their ongoing grades in each course.

[source: EDUCAUSE].

Students are well versed in the mobile technology that has become part of e-learning, while professors know the subject matter well but are less experienced with new technology. The challenge for colleges and universities is bringing the two together. And students may be the more ready group.

A 2006 study of students and faculty at the University of Texas at Brownsville University found that, based on the mobile devices they owned and how they used them, 94 percent of the students surveyed -- but only 60 percent of surveyed faculty -- were ready for mobile learning.

The researchers used the definition of mobile learning as the intersection of mobile computing (the application of small, portable and wireless computing and communication devices) and e-learning. They predicted increased emphasis on mobile learning and urged professors to work e-learning elements into even traditional courses, starting by making content and information accessible from students' computers and phones [source: EDUCAUSE].

As the Net Generation graduates and as technology advances, e-learning is finding a home beyond schools and on campuses. Through Web conferences and Web seminars, for example, companies are using e-learning to train employees, keep stakeholders aware of company initiatives and help consumers learn to use the products they've bought.

For more information about e-learning and related topics, check out the links on the next page.