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Jun 18, 2019 Jennifer Hofmann

What’s in a Name? Digital Learning

digital learning Would it surprise you to learn that, on Wikipedia, the following three phrases are equivalent?

Online Learning --------------> eLearning ------------------> Educational Technology 

I agree that these three terms are often used interchangeably but not always consistently.

Having so many ways of saying the same thing is understandably confusing the people not in the learning and development community. I think it’s also confusing to those of us designing, developing, and delivering content every day.

We keep trying to label everything. I think it’s because we think different technologies and different delivery methods need to be distinguished from one another. Possibly were just thinking out loud asking ourselves the question “How do we get this done?”

Maybe that was important when all of this was new to corporate training (circa 1990). 

But now we should be beyond the labels.

How Did We Get Here?

When I started in training, computer-based training, or CBT, was the up-and-coming trend. Personal computers were starting to become commonplace our employees’ desktops. All the information that lived on mainframes, could now be saved and instantly accessible on individual devices. Training would be delivered on floppy disks, CD-ROMs, or preinstalled on the individual computers.

In the background, the internet was happening. Empowered by the hyperlinking environment of the World Wide Web, web-based training, commonly referred to as WBT, was envisioned. WBT wasn’t very different from CBT; the primary differentiator is where the content was stored prior to a user accessing content. But it was different – so it had a different label. Eventually, WBT started to sound old-fashioned and you started to hear phrases like “online learning” and eventually “e-learning.”  And these concepts are supported by various ‘educational technologies, or ‘learning technologies’ aka EdTech.

E-learning, of course, referred to electronic learning. If you think about it, that could mean learning that’s native to your computer, that lives on the Internet, that is self-paced (asynchronous), or live (synchronous). As long as it was “electronically delivered” it could fall into this bucket of e-learning.

Around 1999, the phrase ‘blended learning’ was introduced.  It was meant to represent a combination of in-person instruction with e-learning components. (To be fair, academia had been doing this for decades.) Other definitions have evolved to better describe blended learning and accommodate the fact that modern learning techniques don’t always include face-to-face instruction, but when you hear the phrase blended learning, most people assume there is a formal in person component to the curriculum.

In order to access content anytime, anywhere, we coined “mobile learning.” And then, to address concerns about attention spans, we started focusing on “microlearning.”  

Then – naturally – we ‘flipped the classroom.’ 

To recap: CBT, WBT, Online Learning, eLearning, EdTech, self-paced, asynchronous, synchronous, blended learning, mobile learning, microlearning, and flipped classrooms. 

Talking about this with a colleague, he said, “That’s all just moving food around on a plate.” The differences aren’t meaningful. And moving them around and calling them something different just makes the whole thing seem less appetizing, somehow. 

Learners just don’t care what we call it. The labels are there to help US. And they don’t really help us – more often they confuse us.

So, Digital Learning is…. What Exactly?   Remix and Recreate

The latest phrase I’m hearing at conferences and reading online is “digital learning.” (Full disclosure as a vendor, we are starting to use the phrase at InSync training as well.)

According to Brendan Guenther, MSU’s first Chief Academic Digital Officer, defining digital learning shouldn’t be easy.

Digital learning definitionI recommend you read his post here.  He discusses in depth the following attributes of digital learning.

Digital learning:

  • Allows us to create a blend.
  • Allows us to personalize and individualize education and training.
  • Provides better opportunities for feedback.
  • Allows us to remix and recreate. (Reusable learning objects anyone? This gets us to the concept of learning campaigns which can create new opportunities for learning experiences.

I think this approach encompasses everything we were trying to accomplish with all the labels over the last decade. It’s broad enough to include EdTech we haven’t even contemplated yet. And specific enough that our clients and learners will know what we are talking about – but they won’t put it into a little tiny box. 
To me, it invites a discussion about approaches.  

Is Digital Learning Just Another Label? 

Possibly. Probably. I think it’s one we can live with for now if we focus on this concept of remixing and recreating and focusing on outcomes and learners instead of technology.

Because it’s all just learning, right?


Published by Jennifer Hofmann June 18, 2019
Jennifer Hofmann