The Pros and the Cons of eLearning

Contents While there has been a quite a bit of hype about elearning, we need to realize that it is fundamentally an effective form of learning. Computing technologies can expand the reach and range of traditional residential colleges, universities, and organizational training programs. They enable learners to synthesize traditional learning with online experiences. Some learners seek a mixture of face-to-face experiences and network-based education. eLearning can provide a more individualized, self-paced, self-directed learning experience. A network can expand the number of options for interaction among faculty and learners.

In a survey from the Masie Center (Learning At Our Desks), training professionals reported that only 29% of elearning would be done during work, the rest would be done after work, during lunch, etc. Why this may be fine for some workers, others see it as an intrusion into their time. Is this the message that we want elearning to send -- that learning is to be performed on the worker's time?

Labor Savings

One might expect to save in training salaries when elearning methodologies are introduced, however, normally both the learners and managers want a trainer assigned to the elearning experience (see Roles and Expectations for e-Trainers). Thus, while elearning might enable trainers to make more effective use of their time, it will not eliminate them.

eLearning Cost Savings

eLearning offers economies of scale. After a sometimes large front-end investment, the cost of usage per incremental student is apt to be low. Moreover, access to very large amounts of information can be obtained at low incremental cost (Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity). Technology-based solutions also tend to be more scalable than labor-intensive ones. One should expect that additional learners could be accommodated at lower cost with technology than with traditional training methods.

. . . technology provides more flexibility than traditional teaching methods once one moves beyond minor changes that can be instituted by individual professors. The 'career' of a workstation may well be less than five years, whereas that of a professor often exceeds 30 years. Workstations don't get tenure, and delegations are less likely to wait on the provost when particular equipment items are 'laid off.' The 'retraining' of IT equipment (for example, reprogramming), while not inexpensive, is easier and more predictable than retraining a tenured professor. Within limits, departments will gain a larger zone of flexibility as the capital-labor ratio grows. - Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity) by William Massy and Robert Zemsky.

This statement should be particularly troubling to HRD professionals, leaders, and managers who declare "People are our most important asset!" For Massy and Zemsky are now declaring, "People are our most important asset -- but only for a limited amount of time!" Also, the statement indicates that a person does not learn over a lifetime, that they suddenly become obsolete and must be retrained. Hummm. . . I thought elearning and life-long learning went hand-in-hand, at least according to the elearning zealots. . .

elearning Drop-Out Rates

While elearning seems to answer a lot of learner's needs, drop-out rates are higher than those for campus-based learning. This is probably the one downside of distance learning that almost everyone agrees upon. Some people thrive on the social interaction of others and they quickly loose interest when they are placed in environments that lack such socializing events as being with others, peer pressure, the ability to do well in front of others, or spirits of competition or cooperation. Vicky Phillips, founder of, a consulting agency for distance educators, estimates the online student dropout rate at around 35%. The average attrition rate for college freshman at U.S. universities is around 20% (The Virtual Classroom Vs. The Real One).

These higher drop-out rates are usually associated with the difficulty that learners have with maintaining the motivation to work their way through courses without feeling either lost or isolated to the point that they simply stop working on the material.

However, some drop out occurs because a learner quits once she has extracted the knowledge or skills required to perform her job. We need to view drop out rates from at least two sides:

  1. The learners quit the program because the learning package did not fit their needs (failure of the learning package to retain learner).
  2. The learners quit the program because they extracted what they needed from the learning package (no failure, the entire learning package was just more than they required).

eLearning Retention Rates

Note: retention in this section means what is remembered, NOT dropping out.

Millbank studied the effectiveness of a mix of audio plus video in corporate training. When he introduced real-time interactivity, the retention rate of the trainees was raised from about 20 percent (using ordinary classroom methods) to about 75 percent (Millbank, 1994). However, this mixture takes bandwidth, which is not plentiful in some organizations.

elearning, Its the Method, Not the Delivery System!

Jerald Schutte, a Sociology Professor at CSU-Northridge reported that students in his virtual class performed 20% better than students in his traditional class (Virtual Teaching in Higher Education: The New Intellectual Superhighway or Just Another Traffic Jam?) A lot of sources were quick to reference this source as being a prime example of the power of elearning.

However, it is not the power of elearning that brought about this achievement, but the methodology employed (Does Using Technology in Instruction Enhance Learning?). elearning is a medium, not a methodology. Note that some of the benefits of elearning were significant in bringing about the increase in student performance, but the same results could have been achieved in the classroom if the same methodology was employed.

No Significant Difference

The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, compiles various writings on distance learning. The bulk of these writings suggest that the learning outcomes of students using technology at a distance are similar to the learning outcomes of students who participate in conventional classroom instruction.

The What’s the Difference? report (The Institute for Higher Education Policy) discusses the quality and effectiveness of distance learning. Note that it is mostly a rebuttal of the No Significant Difference report.

A study completed by the U.S. Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences. That study, entitled Training Through Distance Learning: An Assessment of Research Findings reviews a broad array of literature on the effectiveness of distance learning. The report found the quality of the research on distance learning’s effectiveness was quite weak.

More Reading

Online Students Don't Fare as Well as Classroom Counterparts


Berry, J. (2000), "Traditional training fades in favor of e-learning", InternetWeek.

Millbank, G. 1994. Writing multimedia training with integrated simulation. Paper presented at the Writers’ Retreat on Interactive Technology and Equipment. Vancouver, BC: The University of British Columbia Continuing Studies (p. 75).



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Created January 21, 2001
Updated October 28 30, 2007


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