Studies in Continuing Education
Vol. 28, No. 2, July 2006, pp. 171Á183
E-learning futures? Speculations for a
time yet to come
John G. Hedberg*
Macquarie University, Australia
This paper examines some of the ways in which e-learning has failed to live up to its early promise
and suggests how this situation might be remedied. Two of the main challenges for the future of
e-learning are explored: the ever shifting nature of the e-landscape, characterized by its rapidly
changing technologies, software and marketing mechanisms; the difficulty of helping teachers find
ways to exploit the capacities offered by these ‘disruptive technologies’ as they continue to bring
about change. It is argued that if our investment in e-learning is to be recouped then what is needed
is a paradigm shift to the employment of ‘disruptive pedagogies’. This would involve the use of
teaching strategies that exploit the currently underused capacities of technology options in such a
way as to enable student engagement, motivation and higher order thinking skills.
Assessing the status quo
A colleague recently reported the results of a major survey of e-learning activities in
five large technological universities in Australia (Alexander, 2005) where over 20,000
students and 800 staff were asked about their experiences of e-learning. The
overwhelming impression provided by the respondents was that for most students
and teachers e-learning was little more than the provision of information. On
average, 53% of the respondents saw e-learning as the provision of information only;
over the five institutions this ranged from 26 to 76%. Often this information was
perceived as background and organizational for the course, rather than the provision
of key ideas directly relevant to the topics of the course. For the remainder of the
time e-learning was seen as ‘providing information with unmoderated discussions’
(16%) or ‘information with moderated discussions’ (32%). Even those learning
activities that went beyond information provision were considered limited interac-
tions, with little thought as to what the discussion was meant to achieve.
Zemsky and Massy (2004) also sought to determine why e-learning had not lived
up to the hype it has generated. While their paper has been criticized as being too
qualitative, their findings, in the light of the Alexander survey, lend case study
support for the general conclusion that e-learning innovation has not been the
panacea that might have been hoped. Zemsky and Massy provided many examples of
*Australian Centre for Educational Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.
ISSN 0158-037X (print)/ISSN 1470-126X (online)/06/020171-13
# 2006 Taylor & Francis
172 J. G. Hedberg
a lack of changed pedagogies, such as the relative lack of use of digital repositories
such as MERLOT, the incorrect assumption that e-learning of itself would change
how we teach and the assumption that international offerings would require
consortia rather than the individual prestige of an individual institution. In review-
ing the range of instances, Zemsky and Massy described successful e-learning
implementations by suggesting a continuum of innovation employing e-learning
technologies. They suggested that a first step into e-learning would entail the
teaching staff employing PowerPoint presentation software and the use of e-mail to
contact students; a second step would employ course (or learning) management
systems, such as WebCT and BlackBoard; the third step would be the development
of specific targeted digital interactive objects, such as learning objects;1 the fourth
step would entail the total redesign of courses to ensure a more interactive learner-
oriented and possibly more cost-effective model. Whether or not this sequence of
steps represents the most appropriate implementation of e-learning, Zemsky and
Massy have highlighted that we need to extend our thinking beyond the current
implementations and that the associated pedagogies have to be rethought more
Thus, what is actually happening is at variance with the enthusiasm of numerous
authors over the first decade of e-learning who talked about the alternative learning
strategies that the technologies afford (see, for example, Salmon, 2004; McConnell,
2006; Bonk & Graham, 2006). Fraser (1999) summarised the e-learning task in
sharp contrast to the traditional approaches to resources; he suggested that we need
to move beyond the provision of information into something more interactive:
The extent to which a student gains the same pedagogical benefit from a printout of
your Web resources as from the resources themselves is the extent to which you have
done nothing of pedagogical value by using the Web. (Fraser, 1999)
The rest of this paper will examine ideas and strategies that confront Fraser’s claim
and which might result in a more effective match between e-learning pedagogies, the
affordances of the technologies and the motivation of learners as they achieve
effective e-learning outcomes.
In a recent book Vrasidas and Glass (2005) compiled several views about the task
of preparing teachers to use technologies in the classroom, they found it easy to
identify a number of significant obstacles to integration (Table 1), but the limited
prescriptions for overcoming the obstacles suggest that it is not simply a matter of
providing access to technologies. In fact, it requires a careful process of ensuring
collaboration between teachers and experts, gaining successful experience in
teaching with the technologies and participating in a community that provides
continuous support. In many higher education contexts some of these elements are
missing. Certainly, many instructors have never used e-learning strategies in their
student role nor have they had training in, or previous experience of, teaching with
e-learning strategies. The rapidly changing context in which e-learning is occurring
makes the challenge for these teachers just that little bit harder.
E-learning futures 173
Table 1. Obstacles to integrating ICT in the classroom (Vrasidas & Glass, 2005, p. 8)
The conservative nature of the traditional culture of schooling and classroom instruction.
Teachers’ resistance to changing their traditional teaching approaches.
Lack of time for teachers to learn how to use and integrate ICT in their teaching.
Lack of technology infrastructure.
Lack of specific technologies that address the specific needs of teachers and students.
Lack of ongoing support.
Lack of release time and incentives for teacher innovators.
Incompatibility of traditional teaching with the constructivist framework fostered by ICT.
Need for teachers to unlearn traditional teaching beliefs and practices.
Need to prepare teachers to integrate ICT by integrating ICT in teacher preparation programmes.
Need for policy, curriculum and assessment reform.
Russell et al. (2005) also provided evidential support for the obstacles to e-learning
facing teachers in school contexts. They reiterated that while schools have invested in
the technologies, teachers are making little use of the technologies and students have
limited access. However, they also point to the coarseness of the design and
discussion, suggesting that teacher technology use is multifaceted and that to really
address issues of technology use it is important to collect multiple measures and
realize that teachers value different technologies in different ways. The question still
remains as to how teachers can use e-learning technologies effectively when many of
the obstacles are part of the organizational structures in which technology-based
teaching is used.
So how should we select e-learning technologies to make a major difference in
most teaching and learning contexts when most of the instances are not radical shifts
in approach? To suggest a possible answer to this question, Clayton Christensen
(1997) proposed the idea of disruptive innovations. He claimed that a disruptive
innovation or technology is one that eventually takes over the existing dominant
technology in the market, despite the fact that the disruptive technology is both
radically different from the leading technology and that it often initially performs less
successfully than the leading technology according to existing measures of
performance, but over time the functionality or the attributes of the new way of
doing things replace the older technologies. Here an obvious recent example is the
demise of film as the medium for home photography. Over many decades acetate film
provided the record of family and other real world experiences. The rise of the
educational audiovisual movement was supported by the advent of cheap and
accessible methods of capturing views of the world and situating challenges and
learning in real-world contexts through the use of the photographic image. Then, in
the second half of last century, we had a potentially disruptive technology in the
Polaroid film process. Records of the world were now viewable almost immediately
and several important uses were found for this technology: passport photographs and
identity cards. However, as the recording processes moved from analogue to digital
recording mechanisms, suddenly the storage of images in a visually recognizable
form was no longer required; they could be deconstructed, manipulated and
174 J. G. Hedberg
retrieved at will. The digital images could also be transmitted with excellent quality
anywhere in the world to be reconstructed to the same quality as was sent. Thus
digital photographic technologies became disruptive technologies and replaced both
the photographic film and the Polaroid recording of our world.
To search for the e-learning analogy, it would seem from the evidence so far
collected that no such disruptive innovation has replaced traditional pedagogies.
While curriculum managers may have initially seen e-learning as a potentially
disruptive innovation, it does not seem to have replaced the dominant paradigms.
e-Learning has enabled the curriculum of the educational institution to be more
efficiently recorded and transmitted to learners in many different contexts. It has
enabled every institution to become a potential distance learning provider and it has
encouraged many students and teachers to change the meeting times and places that
they use on a daily basis. Today students who still meet in formal classes will ask for
many aspects of their course to be provided online so that they can access them while
managing a complex work and study schedule. Early in the use of e-learning
technologies there was student resistance to employing any online elements, but
more recently in her survey Alexander (2005) found that students valued:
1. access to information*knowing you could pre-read or catch up;
2. asking questions*asking ‘dumb’ questions without embarrassment and ‘seeing’
what other questions people were asking;
3. benchmarking and comparing*comparing your interpretations and products
with others and understanding assessment demands and rubrics;
4. time and place flexibility*being able to juggle work, family and study, reducing
long commuting times and maximizing the time spent on each activity and at
what place that time would be spent.
Yet for all these conveniences, the cost has been the time required to undertake
learning and teaching tasks. Most students still claim that it takes significant time to
undertake online studies. (In fact, most good online facilitators also claim it takes
more time to provide feedback and support online and to move students into
effective online learning techniques.) However, even for this disadvantage there are
positive elements. Many students report, for example, that if they are studying in a
language that is not their first language the recorded nature of many of the
interactions ensures that they are able to keep up and understand with reference to
dictionaries and mutually supportive self-help groups.
However, the move into e-learning has not been without casualties. In spite of
recognizing that there are advantages for teachers and students, several institutions
have pulled out of offering courses. The closure of the UK eUniversities Worldwide
(UKeU) follows the earlier failure of such schemes in the USA, where the low
numbers of enrolled students indicate that this is not always what the majority of
students seek for their university education. When reporting on the closure of the
UKeU the funding body stated that universities favoured a blended approach
‘involving a mixture of IT, traditional, work-based and distance learning to meet the
E-learning futures 175
diverse needs of students’ (Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2004).
This contrasts markedly with the promotion of other providers, such as the
University of Phoenix, where some courses are offered online and some face-to-
face in a range of disciplines (business, education, health care, counseling, human
services, nursing and technology). Their model actually focuses on areas and topics
where the resource costs are relatively lower than other professional disciplines and
they employ a faculty drawn from other organizations from which the faculty
members derive their substantive income. It is contended that the Phoenix model
employs the cost-effective options but does not attempt the expensive high quality
development options that several other operations have attempted.
So what might be considered as disruptive technologies and how might their
associated pedagogies overcome some of these identified limitations of e-learning.
Here it is important not to equate each technology employed in educational
processes as operating in similar functional ways in each of its contexts of use. First,
we need to be sensitive to the potential affordances of each technology and not
simplistically classify their role as learning with text or image, which is a popular
definition of multimedia learning (Mayer, 2005, p. 2). Second, we need to explore
the complexity and time demands of the task of integrating a particular strategy or
tool into a teaching programme. Third, we need to be aware of the organizational
aspects of the institutions that are offering the learning experience. While recognizing
that the list is still incomplete, e-learning options need to be explored to increase the
impact at all levels of the learning experience, student, teacher and organization. The
next sections will examine some tools and techniques options.
Tools to support e-learning
At present e-learning seems to be an amalgamation of various web technologies that
replicate the strategies available in the face-to-face classroom. Metaphors through
which these components of e-learning create similar relationships to face-to-face
contexts include discussion forums, online assessment and textbooks.
However, at the tool level the technology affords much more than the elements
available to the individual classroom teacher. For instance, in terms of display and
representation of ideas the technology has enabled visual and aural information
display within software packages. It has also enabled the learner to create a
representation of high quality and with tools that support the transduction of
information from one form to another. It is now possible to collect data from the field
and represent that data in a graph or animated display that explains the ideas visually
and succinctly. In fact, Jonassen (1996) has emphasized the role of technologies in
supporting the thinking processes of learners, an approach termed cognitive tools or
mindtools. While it is possible to retrieve information in a variety of modalities, more
important is the associated process of generativity, enabling the learner to construct
their understanding of phenomena. Examples of some of the range of options are
presented in Table 2.
176 J. G. Hedberg
Table 2. Some options for technology use
Form of use Teacher example Student example
Presentational Using PowerPoint to construct and Using PowerPoint to report back,
structure a visual presentation showing the findings or outcomes
of a discussion. This also enables
non-linear presentation if so desired
Generative Using an outliner to demonstrate a Building a game using web pages
text structure (It allows switching requires the development of under-
between plan and execution) standing of a topic then translation
into a motivating structure and
presentation to others
Representational Using Excel to convert numbers Write a script then use iMovie
(transduction) and to show relationships or saving to create a narrative documentary.
a sequence of charts into the same The script needs to be researched,
format to create movement and written, visualised, shot, edited and
animation where none existed before annotated, then presented
The future success of e-learning also depends on a revolutionary move away from
simply replicating traditional (classroom-based) teaching practices. When Pierre
Ramus created the first textbooks in the 1500s (Ong, 2005) he recognized as an
affordance of the most recent technologies (Guttenberg’s printing press) the ability
to collect what was required to be learnt in the one place: the textbook was born. Not
only did the invention of the printing press enable books to be created more
efficiently, they were also more sharable in that they could be made in quantity to
enable diverse locations to share copies more quickly. Many authors have noted that
with the World Wide Web we have the possibility of this idea being democratized. It
is no longer necessary for the teacher to select from the universe of authorized texts;
the student can undertake the same task directly. Indeed, with the advent of the
search engine and with its increasing sophistication this task is being made more
accessible and customizable. Thus the technologies support the changing views of
learning towards constructivist approaches and help increase the move back toward
dialogic literacy (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2005), a move that mimics the Greek
dialogue, which was a central method of learning prior to Ramus’ textbooks. This in
turn increases the challenge and requires higher order skills of the learner. As
Bereiter and Scardamalia (2005) suggested what we need is a ‘dialogic literacy’
In every kind of knowledge-based, progressive organization, new knowledge and new
directions are forged through dialogue. . . . The dialogue in Knowledge Age organiza-
tions is not principally concerned with narrative, exposition, argument, and persuasion
(the stand-bys of traditional rhetoric) but with solving problems and developing new
ideas. (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2005)
E-learning futures 177
So what should be part of a more disruptive e-learning?
While many tools can be used as part of the representational framing of ideas, if they
are to support a pedagogical structure they often need to be mixed with other
components. Consider Table 3, which suggests ways that different types of outcomes
can be achieved by employing a range of interactive activities using digital resources
provided by the teacher or generated by the learner, possibly scaffolded or using
other support structures (such as cognitive tools to assist performance), all to
accomplish final assessments. When digital elements are involved the final assess-
ments may be expanded beyond the reproduction of facts and concepts into a single
product to more importantly emphasize the process through which the student
attained the final outcome. It is easy to show versions of an essay, it is easy to get a
student to comment upon how they changed things and why and, finally, it is easy to
get them to assess their own progress towards the goal. Many of these elements are
not as easily included in a non-e-learning context, as they depend upon affordances
of the technologies and the lessened demands on individual effort to keep the digital
record of the journey rather than the paper trail of notes and ideas.
Thus the components of e-learning interactions emphasize personal construction,
the collection of artefacts representing a constructed learning state and, by
comparing artefacts, how the learners’ thoughts were changed or modified, and
even the source of the influence on those thoughts. It is possible to document not
only the personal construction of understanding but also the social interactions that
have contributed to the journey. The importance of the social interactions in the
process is emphasized by many writers and practitioners of e-learning (Salmon,
All of these components (Table 3) are provided in the most common tools used to
support e-learning, the content management system (CMS), sometimes also called
the learning management system (LMS). Zemsky and Massy (2004) suggested that
the use of such systems represents the second stage of e-learning innovation.
Table 3. Components of e-learning interactions
Outcome Interactive activity Digital asset Support Assessment
Create Diagram/map Drawing FAQ Self-test/quiz
Evaluate Journal Photograph Contextual help Essay/report
Synthesize Tutorial Diagram/map Links to checklists Journal
Analyse Case study Text Self-checking Prognosis
Apply Presentation Simulation Collaboration with others Hypothesis
Understand Game Animation Links to further resources Classification
Recall Web quest Video clip Plan
Experiment Audio clip Visual representation
Role playing Musical score Game
178 J. G. Hedberg
Contemporary content management systems allow the teacher to organize resources
in a predetermined order that then prescribes a structured learning strategy. This
type of structure usually mirrors classroom practice and thus the strategy does not
suggest a disruptive innovation. In this instance a closely related alternative strategy
might be the role of digital repositories or libraries as alternatives to the CMS. Digital
repositories provide users with the opportunity to take control of their choice of
resources. They provide ways of representing their ideas, by using these resources,
creating new resources and even developing their own learning strategies. Immedi-
ately this affords a student-centred learning strategy and supports other modern
constructivist approaches to pedagogy. While a constructivist philosophy might be
considered very disruptive by some teachers, it certainly shifts the focus of control in
deciding learning topics and sequences; a move that would be more suitable to
the lifelong learner. The shift to such a pedagogical strategy would also require more
emphasis on the higher order learning outcomes in Table 3, such as create, evaluate
For digital repositories to be considered a disruptive pedagogical innovation their
capabilities and affordances need to be reviewed. They have the potential to support
learners in the construction of their own knowledge. They afford the capacity for
personalized project management and for the collection of resources from more than
one source, requiring comparisons and contrastings to ensure that the information
found meets the learning goal. In fact, the workload on the instructor to create
resources is diminished, but the assessment may, if not well constructed, grow more
difficult. In a series of studies with a digital repository in geography Hedberg and
Chang (2005) demonstrated that the approach can improve a range of learner skills.
In terms of finding information, the students primarily used the built-in tools and the
resource and schema management tool of the G-portal, even though they had been
encouraged to seek beyond the repository. There were several IT literacy issues;
students did not validate the information that they had retrieved from the web or the
repository. This means that the way the resources and information were presented
did not raise any issue of veracity or interpretation concerns for the students. Thus,
when designing learning activities there is a need to demand more conflicting but
reasonable information in the task. There was also evidence that most of the groups
were able to employ multimodality in the construction of their learning artefacts.
While the digital library can support a more authentic data- or evidence-based
approach to learning tasks it is still limited by the students’ IT literacy skills and their
ability to construct metacognitive strategies to approach open-ended learning tasks.
As Jonassen (2005) succinctly suggested, all learning might effectively be considered
problem solving. Certainly when students are tasked with the exploration of the
resources by themselves, the understanding of the structure of the information, its
modes of representation and methods for assuring the quality and appropriateness
are not trivial skills, even for well-developed discipline knowledge specialists.
As for the possibility of the digital library being the basis of a disruptive pedagogy,
the requirement that the student needs to form their strategies of interaction and the
importance of the different forms of information representation all support the need
E-learning futures 179
to go beyond the simple serving up of information offered by current LMSs. In
addition, the digital repository and related links to the World Wide Web provide easy
access to information in many modalities; it also provides access to simple
manipulative tools, which support a cognitive tools approach to the manipulation
of concepts. However, the main limitation of their use in education still appears to be
a lack of quality in the learning tasks provided; the absence of opportunities for
students to explore and construct knowledge, to do this with scaffolding and support
and for their tasks to be created in ways that lead to their success.
Learning objects as potentially disruptive
Other potential successful shifts from sustaining pedagogies to disruptive pedagogies
might also exist in terms of learning objects. However, as mentioned previously, the
commonly used objects at this time are often linked more closely to topics within a
syllabus, making them less useable in different contexts. Interestingly, while learning
object repositories have been developed in several countries, their usage is not as
common as might be expected. Without exploring the range of reasons, the lack of
use appears related to the type of objects being shared. Most are content dependent
and contain elements that can only be used to teach a specific topic and ‘fit’ into the
context for which it was devised. Learning objects represent the increasing
modularization of individual elements that can be retrieved from databases and
employed in a number of different learning contexts.
Potentially disruptive alternatives to the learning object are the recent initiatives to
create learning activity sequences (Dalziel, 2003). The latest work on learning
activity management sequences (LAMS) has focused on generic strategies that are
questions or discussions or processes that need to be populated with their topics.
This simple difference appears to re-establish the teachers’ focus on pedagogy rather
than on the topic to be taught and evaluations are suggesting that the learning
outcomes are enhanced as a consequence (Gibbs & Philip, 2005).
Overall modularization and reusable object creation, then, can provide consider-
able support for changes in teaching approaches. To create pedagogical experiences
that make a significant impact on either teacher or learner it would seem that
potentially disruptive pedagogical options need to be adopted. This would be likely
to result in:
1. a shift from content management systems (LMS) to digital repositories;
2. a shift from learning objects (with content embedded) to learning activities that
are shareable pedagogical sequences without content;
3. a shift from information delivery to more interaction support, thus enabling the
social construction of meaningful knowledge;
4. a shift in focus from assessment of the end product to assessment of the learning
journey, through keeping portfolios of en route products that indicate changes in
understanding and reflection;
180 J. G. Hedberg
5. a shift from a focus on facts and principles to a focus on benchmarking of
performance against many other examples, either within the class or between
What do we need to add for disruption
The announcement of a merger by BlackBoard and WebCT (BlackBoard, 2005) has
started many educators rethinking how educational institutions should approach
their e-learning strategies and how they support links between and among students
and teachers. It becomes a time in which new options in technology use might
include open source software as an alternative to provide a less expensive learning
management software environment or the rethinking of course design so that
investment in one propriety system does not prohibit a later move or switch to
another that offers a better pedagogical match.
However, a better consideration might be not to overlay the decision with changes
in the technology options, but rather to explore the match between pedagogy, tool
and motivation*to examine why the learner might commit more time and energy to
learning. Several authors have suggested that strategies such as games and three-
dimensional virtual worlds might provide more disruptive pedagogical strategies
(Barab et al., 2005). It is acknowledged that these environments do increase the
motivation of the participants. The options for learners to construct their own spaces
raises further challenges to perform at higher cognitive levels (Lim et al., 2006).
In speaking on the topic of technology and engaged learning, Metros (2003)
suggested the additional element of engagement. She argued that for students to
become engaged with their learning, e-learning should be redesigned to move them
through three processes: transfer of ideas, translation of ideas and transcending ideas.
She defined these as involving the following.
Transfer. Transfer conventional instructional tools, strategies, communication and
delivery to a technology-enhanced learning environment.
Translate. Redefine and shift conventional instructional tools, strategies, commu-
nication and delivery to the technology-enhanced learning environment.
Transcend. Go beyond conventional instructional tools, strategies, communication
and delivery to invent new paradigms for teaching and learning.
It is with transcending that we have the phenomenon of the educational game in
which the experience is deemed sufficiently realistic that the learner can participate
and ignore the distractions around them. The suggestion is that we move toward an
e-learning strategy that, with the right choice of tools, will support the learner in
making choices about authentic problems situated in meaningful contexts and using
tools which support cognition and the end result.
Current e-learning activity is motivated by transfer and driven by the teacher. As
we choose more potentially disruptive pedagogical options it is possible to move
towards transcending motivation and create environments in which the learner is
E-learning futures 181
Table 4. Matching pedagogies with motivation (modiﬁed from Metros, 2003)
Level of engagement
Passive interest Dynamic interaction Achieving a flow state
Transfer Translate Transcend
Applications Online syllabus Web resources Smart tutoring
Online lecture notes Web quests Remote instrumentation
Presentations Blogs (collecting data remotely
through the web)
Course web site Learning communities Immersive 3D graphic
E-reserves Rich media databases environments (such as
Learning objects Dynamic knowledge
Multimedia presentations collection
Self-paced tutorials Federated and harvested
Learning Computer literacy Collaboration Advanced sensory input/
Comprehension Cooperation Redefined teacherÁstudent
Convenience and Critical thinking Realistic research solutions
Time management Problem solving Life-long learning
Convenient access Teamwork Reflective assignments
Community building Alternative learning Access to targeted
experiencing views of the world that are multimodal and require a range of literacies,
not only to understand the different representative descriptions but also to employ
tools with which the learner can construct and communicate their ideas with others.
Thus, for any e-learning experience to be disruptive and integral to future learning it
is necessary to create a learning space that facilitates the movement of the learner
from being a passive participant toward an active engaged constructor of their own
. there needs to be a rethinking of learning activities;
. an exploration of how interactions are managed and facilitated;
182 J. G. Hedberg
. a choice of the right tool for the pedagogical task.
If disruptions of this kind can be absorbed by educators, then I would speculate that
the e-learning of the future will realize the promise and potential so many have
recognized but so few have translated into improvements in learning.
I am grateful for the comments of my colleagues, Chang Chew Hung, Pamela
Coutts, Donna Gibbs, Bill Twyman, and the reviewers on earlier drafts.
1. Learning objects are not clearly deﬁned in the literature but a commonly accepted deﬁnition
was provided by Wiley (2002), who deﬁned a learning object as ‘any digital resource that can
be reused to support learning’ (p. 6). Several large projects have sought to create repositories
of learning objects that can be shared by fellow teachers. The Le@rning Federation (2005)
online curriculum content initiative takes a similar stance, stating that a learning object is a
‘digital resource facilitating learning experiences related to a particular educational purpose.
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