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What is Online Learning? Brief History, Benefits & Limitations

12 min
What is Online Learning

In the rapidly evolving landscape of education, one term has become increasingly prominent: online learning. As technology continues to prevail in every aspect of our lives, the education industry has been quick to adapt, embracing digital platforms to deliver learning experiences beyond the limitations of traditional classrooms.

But, what exactly is online learning, and how does it reshape the way we acquire knowledge and skills?

In this article, we will answer that and explore online learning in depth looking into its origins, methodologies, benefits, and implications for the future of education.

By examining the benefits and challenges of online learning, we will acquire an understanding of its transformative power and its role in shaping the educational landscape of tomorrow.

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Whether you’re a seasoned educator, a lifelong learner, or simply curious about the evolution of digital education, stay put as we learn more about how we can teach and learn in the digital age.

Definition of Online Learning

Online learning, also referred to as e-learning, digital learning or even sometimes virtual learning, encompasses a broad spectrum of educational activities facilitated through digital technologies.

Online learning is a form of education where instruction and learning take place over the internet and through digital learning tools or platforms like online learning platforms, and learning management systems (LMS).

Instead of traditional face-to-face interactions in a physical classroom, online learning relies heavily on technology to deliver educational content, facilitate communication between instructors and learners, and assess learner progress.

History of Online Learning: The Roots & Evolution

The roots of online learning are deeply intertwined with the development of computing technology and the Internet. Its evolution can be traced back to the mid-20th century when pioneers began exploring the potential of technology to enhance educational experiences.

To better understand online learning and how it has emerged to become what it is today, let’s briefly travel back in time to go over its key milestones.

Early Experiments in Distance Education

In the 1950s and 1960s, early experiments with computer-based instruction laid the groundwork for what would later become online learning.

Programs such as PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) introduced interactive learning experiences through computer terminals connected to centralized mainframe computers. These systems enabled students to access course materials, complete assignments, and communicate with instructors remotely.

A few years later, the concept of distance learning – which involves delivering instruction to students who are not physically present in a traditional classroom setting, further propelled this evolution.

Institutions such as the Open University in the United Kingdom and the University of Phoenix in the United States pioneered distance learning models, leveraging postal mail, radio broadcasts, and eventually, early forms of online communication to reach remote learners.

The Internet Revolution

The widespread adoption of the Internet in the 1990s marked a significant turning point in the development of online learning as well. The emergence of the World Wide Web democratized access to information and communication, paving the way for developing web-based learning platforms and creating online courses.

In 1983, the online educational network ‘Electronic University Network’ (EUN) became available for use on Commodore 64 and DOS computers, and the first course to be completely held online was launched one year later by the University of Toronto.

Other educational institutions, corporations, and individuals then began exploring the potential of the Internet to deliver educational content and facilitate interactive learning experiences.

Advancements in Learning Management Systems

The late 20th and early 21st centuries witnessed the rise of learning management systems, which provided centralized platforms for delivering, managing, and tracking online learning activities.

Platforms such as Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) which was the first open-source LMS, revolutionized the way educational content was delivered and facilitated collaboration between instructors and learners in virtual environments.

Learners were using a downloadable desktop application and from there they would choose which content they wanted to export on their computers.

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

In the 2010s, the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) further transformed the landscape of online learning.

MOOC platforms started offering free or low-cost access to courses from leading universities and institutions around the world, reaching millions of learners globally. MOOCs popularized the concept of open and accessible online education, sparking discussions about the future of traditional higher education and lifelong learning.

Continued Innovation and Expansion

Online learning continues to evolve rapidly today, driven by advancements in technology, pedagogy, and learning science.

Since the millennium, the elearning industry has grown by 900%, and by the end of 2025 is expected to triple. The global elearning market will reach $336.98 in 2026 and by 2032, the total value projection is estimated to hit a trillion.

Already data shows that around 90% of organizations offer digital learning to train employees, confirming its crucial role in corporate training environments as well.

💁🏼 Find out How to Build a Great Online Corporate Training Program

There is no doubt that innovations such as adaptive learning, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are reshaping the online learning environment, providing learners with more personalized, immersive, and engaging educational experiences with real impact on their personal and professional lives.

Types of Online Learning

From interactive multimedia-rich modules to live-streamed lectures, online learning today offers a diverse array of tools and resources tailored to meet the needs of learners across several disciplines and levels of expertise.

It encompasses various forms of educational content and activities delivered online, such as online courses, lectures, video tutorials, quizzes, presentations, online classes, live webinars, and more.

Online learning can be categorized into various types, including synchronous and asynchronous learning, as well as blended learning.

Synchronous Learning:

This involves real-time interaction between instructors and students, often through video conferencing tools (like Zoom or Skype), chat rooms, or virtual classrooms.

Synchronous learning mimics the structure of traditional classroom instruction, with scheduled lectures, discussions, and other activities.

Asynchronous Learning:

In asynchronous mode, learners access course materials and complete assignments at their own pace. While there may be deadlines for assignments and exams, online students have flexibility in terms of when and where they engage with the content.

Asynchronous learning typically involves pre recorded lectures, discussion forums, online quizzes, and other interactive elements.

Blended Learning:

Also known as hybrid learning, this approach combines online instruction with face-to-face interactions. Learners may attend some classes in person while completing others online.

Blended learning offers the benefits of both traditional and online education, providing flexibility while still allowing for direct engagement with instructors and peers.

Key Benefits of Online Learning

Online learning offers several advantages, including accessibility for learners with geographical or scheduling constraints and flexibility in pacing and scheduling.

It can support a variety of educational resources, accommodate diverse learning styles, and offer opportunities for personalized learning.

Here are some of the key benefits of online learning:

Understanding these benefits and multiple facets of online learning is crucial, so let’s take a closer look at each.

Flexibility and accessibility for learners

Online learning offers unparalleled flexibility for learners, allowing them to access educational resources and participate in self-paced learning programs fitting their daily schedules.

Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms with fixed schedules, online learning caters to the diverse needs of students, whether they are full-time working professionals seeking to enhance their skills or individuals with busy lifestyles balancing multiple commitments.

Additionally, online learning breaks down geographical barriers, enabling individuals from remote or underserved areas to access high-quality education that may not have been feasible otherwise. By providing 24/7 access to the learning material, online platforms empower learners to take control of their education and pursue their academic or professional goals on their own terms.

Cost-effectiveness and scalability

One of the most significant advantages of online learning is its cost-effectiveness and scalability. By leveraging digital technologies and eliminating the need for physical infrastructure, such as classrooms and textbooks, online courses can be delivered at a fraction of the cost of traditional education.

This affordability makes education more accessible to a wider audience, including individuals with limited financial resources or those unable to afford traditional tuition fees.

Moreover, online learning platforms have the potential for rapid scalability, allowing institutions to accommodate a larger number of students without the constraints of physical space or instructor availability. This scalability is particularly advantageous for organizations looking to expand their educational offerings or reach new markets without significant investments in infrastructure.

Customization and adaptability to diverse learning styles

Online learning platforms offer a wealth of tools and resources to cater to diverse learning styles and preferences. From interactive multimedia content to adaptive learning algorithms, these platforms can personalize the learning experience to suit the individual needs and preferences of each student.

Learners can choose the format and pace of their studies, engage with interactive exercises, and simulations, complete coursework, and receive instant feedback to track their progress and identify areas for improvement. Additionally, online courses often incorporate various multimedia elements, such as videos, animations, and gamified activities, to enhance engagement and retention.

Some platforms with advanced features like LearnWorlds, even go the extra mile offering instructors the ability to communicate with their learners as well as learners communicating with their peers, via online discussion boards, in private or public groups, and as part of a wider online learning community.

Give LearnWorlds a spin and explore its awesome capabilities. Get your free trial today!

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Global reach and democratization of education

Online learning transcends geographical boundaries, enabling access to education for individuals around the world. Regardless of location or time zone, learners can connect with instructors and peers, fostering a global learning community.

This global reach not only enriches the educational experience by facilitating cross-cultural exchange and collaboration but also promotes inclusivity and diversity within the learning environment.

Moreover, online courses often offer language localization options, making educational content accessible to non-native speakers and individuals with different language preferences.

By offering this level of access to education, online learning empowers individuals from all walks of life to pursue their academic and professional aspirations, regardless of socio-economic status or geographic location.

Challenges of Online Learning

Despite its advantages though, online learning also presents challenges such as the need for reliable internet access and proper computer equipment.

It also requires the self-discipline of learners to stay motivated and focused and comes with potential limitations that may hinder social interaction as well as hands-on learning experiences.

Some of the key challenges of online learning include:

Now, let’s examine these downsides in greater detail as well.

Social isolation and lack of face-to-face interaction

Without the physical presence of classmates and instructors, online learners may miss out on spontaneous discussions, group activities, and non-verbal cues that facilitate communication and relationship-building in traditional classrooms. This lack of social interaction can impact engagement and satisfaction with the learning experience.

Technical difficulties and hands-on learning

Online learners may encounter challenges accessing course materials, participating in virtual sessions, or submitting assignments due to technical glitches or outages. These disruptions can undermine the reliability and effectiveness of online learning platforms, requiring robust technical support and contingency plans to minimize their impact on the learning process.

When such problems occur, offering hands-on learning experiences becomes even more difficult. Laboratory experiments, fieldwork, or technical training may be impractical or insufficiently replicated in online environments, limiting opportunities for tactile exploration, observation, and skill development.

Combining online learning with on-site learning though, will allow learners to pursue disciplines that require practical application and experiential learning opportunities.

Self-motivation and potential distractions

Without the structure and supervision provided in traditional classrooms, online learners must possess strong self-discipline, time management skills, and intrinsic motivation to stay on track with coursework and meet deadlines.

The lack of external pressure and accountability can make it challenging for some learners to maintain focus and consistency in their studies. The convenience and accessibility of online learning can increase susceptibility to distractions, requiring learners to implement strategies for minimizing interruptions and creating conducive study environments.

💁🏼 Check out this guide on how to increase student engagement in online learning.

Quality assurance and accreditation concerns

With the wide variety of online courses and credentials available, learners must be extra careful when assessing the reputation, accreditation, and instructional quality of online programs.

Poorly designed or unaccredited courses may lack academic rigor, relevance, or recognition, undermining the value and credibility of the credentials obtained. This underscores the importance of conducting thorough research and due diligence when selecting online learning opportunities to ensure alignment with educational and career goals.

💁🏼 Here are 13 things to consider when determining the value of your online course.

Moving Forward: The Responsibility of Online Instructors & Course Creators

Our digitally-driven world makes everything possible today, and this is one of our biggest assets. Even the hardest challenges can be addressed and resolved effectively; all it takes is staying creative, flexible, and open to trying new things.

This goes out to not only online learners but especially to aspiring online instructors and course creators. Making digital learning a reality starts with a dream and a passion project. Once you have that everything else falls into place, having the right dose of determination and perseverance.

To make sure online learning environments are as inclusive and effective as should be, the next generation of educators needs to think about the instructional methods and strategies they are planning to use and select their equipment carefully.

Pedagogical considerations and instructional design challenges

Diving into the more theoretical and practical aspects of the work of educators, it’s important to go over some key pedagogical considerations and instructional design practices.

Below are some educational principles and strategies to take into account when creating online learning experiences:

Pedagogical Considerations

These are the principles and theories of teaching and learning that guide the design of online courses. Pedagogical considerations involve understanding how students learn best and selecting appropriate instructional methods and strategies to facilitate learning in an online environment.

This may include considerations such as active learning, learner-centered approaches, scaffolding of content, and the use of formative assessment to gauge student understanding.

💁🏼 Need help with course design? Accelerate Course Design with 18 Proven Course Templates

Instructional Design Challenges

These refer to the various hurdles and complexities that educators and instructional designers may face when creating effective online learning experiences.

Challenges may arise in areas such as content organization and sequencing, designing engaging and interactive activities, ensuring accessibility and inclusivity for all learners, managing learner engagement and motivation, and integrating technology tools effectively into the learning experience.

Instructional designers must address these challenges to create meaningful and impactful online courses.

Online course platforms, LMSs, and other tools

The technological means they will use to make this happen have to offer scalable capabilities, robust and advanced features, and provide the innovative solutions they need.

Must-have features in online learning platforms and LMSs include:

🧩 Assessments and feedback: Tools for providing timely and constructive feedback to learners, including automated quizzes, peer assessments, instructor feedback, and self-assessment activities, facilitate continuous improvement and reflection.

💬 Collaboration and social-building tools: Collaboration and communication among learners, instructors, and peers through virtual platforms, discussion forums, group projects, and collaborative tools, which can foster a sense of community and shared learning experiences.

📊 Detailed reporting & analytics: Track progress, monitor performance, and assess learning outcomes through data-rich analytics offered by an LMS, helping to facilitate informed decision-making and targeted interventions.

📝 SCORM-compliance: Ensures that your learning content aligns with the desirable e-learning market standards and is compatible with different LMSs. It allows for interoperability between various tools and platforms, ensuring seamless integration and consistent user experience across different systems.

📲 Mobile Learning: Use of mobile apps on devices such as smartphones and tablets to deliver educational content and facilitate learning activities. It enables learners to access educational resources anytime, anywhere, thus promoting flexibility and accessibility.

🎨 White-labeling: Removing the branding of the LMS provider to customize the appearance and branding of your e-learning website to align with your own brand identity. This can include customizing the platform’s logo, color scheme, and other visual elements.

🎮 Gamification: Involves integrating game design elements and mechanics into e-learning content to engage learners and motivate them to participate in learning activities via the use of points, badges, and leaderboards.

🎥 Live sessions: Real-time, synchronous learning experiences that offer instructor-led opportunities – instructors and learners interact with each other in virtual classrooms or webinars aiding collaboration, and engagement.

🛠️ Integrations: Ability to connect with other software systems and tools, such as CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems, content repositories, video conferencing tools, and third-party applications, enabling seamless data exchange, and enhanced functionality.

💡 AI-powered functionality: Utilizes AI and machine learning algorithms to automate processes, personalize learning experiences, and provide intelligent insights. This enhances efficiency, effectiveness, and scalability in e-learning by leveraging advanced technologies to support learners and instructors throughout the learning journey.

Lead the Change as a Course Creator: Embrace Online Learning

In this article, we have explored the evolution of online learning, from its early days in computer-based instruction to its current status as a transformative force in education.

As we’ve seen, online learning holds immense potential for democratizing education by overcoming geographical barriers and providing access to unique learning experiences. For the modern digital creator, educator, and trainer, there are huge opportunities to teach online and monetize knowledge while empowering learners from all around the world.

By embracing innovative pedagogical approaches, and fostering interactive learning environments, you can easily create value-packed online courses that cater to the unique needs and preferences of your learners.

Start building your online academy by leveraging a robust learning platform like LearnWorlds. Try it out for free today!

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Content Creator at LearnWorlds

Kyriaki is a Content Creator for the LearnWorlds team writing about marketing and e-learning, helping course creators on their journey to create, market, and sell their online courses. Equipped with a degree in Career Guidance, she has a strong background in education management and career success. In her free time, she gets crafty and musical.