Learning Methods

History of eLearning: E is for Evolutionary


eLearning—also known as online learning, educational technology, computer-based training (CBT), and web-based training (WBT)—has roots deep in the early decades of the 20th century.

What does the e in eLearning stand for? It’s not just electronic anymore. The eLearning pioneer Bernard Luskin says it represents “exciting, energetic, engaging, extended learning.”

What if e is for evolutionary?  The biggest difference between the eLearning of the 20th century and where we are today is that it’s evolved to become an enhancement of learning, not a replacement. (There’s another e-word!)

Where did it all start?

The First eLearning Devices: 1924

There must be an industrial revolution in education in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.

Sidney Pressey, 1924, inventor of the Automatic Teacher, the first electronic device used in schools

The Automatic Teacher was essentially a primitive Scantron/bubble-sheet testing machine. The cost was about $15—half the amount required to educate a student for a whole year during that era. The machine worked by requiring children to answer each question correctly before going on to the next one. 

But it was not to be.

Pressey’s ‘Automatic Teacher’ is a rich example of failure in the midst of modernist commitments to scientific and technological progress.

Stephen Petrina

“Sidney Pressey and the Automation of Education.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 45, No. 2 (April 2004), pp. 305 – 330.

BF Skinner’s “Teaching Machine”: 1954

30 years after Pressey’s invention, BF Skinner created the “Teaching Machine” to promote self-management—or how students think and respond to stimuli in their environment. It was a mechanical device programmed with questions and rewards for correct answers. The machine gave students immediate and regular reinforcement designed to keep them engaged with novel material.

The goals of the “Teaching Machine” that BF Skinner describes are similar to our modern interpretation of online learning:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Self-paced learning
  • Ability to align with student’s level
  • Ability to cover more material in less time

From Mainframe to Mainstream

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s, computers continued to shrink in size while offering exponentially greater power. Not much innovation took place in business eLearning until the 1980s, when employees gained access to personal computers. Floppy discs and CD-based videos were gaining popularity in training. By this point in academia, the Open University in the UK began offering Internet-based courses, which were incredibly popular with 2,000 students enrolled during the first year.

Modern eLearning: Collaboration

Thanks in part in part to Moore’s Law and our increasing access to the Internet, today we’re immersed in computer-supported collaborative learning. CSCL relies on technological innovation to improve teaching and learning. Think “eLearning 2.0,”—social, collaborative, networked environments where learners work together on tasks and share information and knowledge. The tools of CSCL are virtual classrooms, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and virtual worlds. (Hey you’re reading this online, aren’t you?) 

The past decade has been especially cataclysmic for elearning. It’s all about connectivism—the perspective that knowledge exists in the world rather than in an individual's mind. Opportunities to connect are found everywhere. YouTube. Twitter. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). ScoopIt. iTunes U. Skype. Any number of topic-specific blogs. We could go on and on!

By the way, if you’re having trouble keeping up with the nomenclature of learning, you’re not alone. Check out this great infographic, which breaks down learning lingo.

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