How Online Education Became Fun: A History of E-Learning Platforms

The Internet, since its inception, has been the ultimate store for a great wealth of human knowledge — limitless, indexed, interlinked. It’s no surprise, then, that self-education has become one of the ultimate killer apps for global digital interconnection.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of technology, where self-taught professionals continue to dominate the industry. With technological advances outpacing the ability of traditional curriculum-building to deliver courses to self-motivated geeks thirsty for knowledge, it’s only fitting that sites for IT professionals remain a hotbed for cutting-edge e-learning solutions.

We’ve come a long way from the early days of a bunch of random text files nestled in an FTP or Gopher directory, though. The industry has learned a lot about the potential of the e-learning environment, and some trends and best-practices in online education are becoming clear.


Universities Join the Internet

Colleges and universities, sticking with what they know, have been getting behind the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) concept. MOOC essentially opens the lecture hall and syllabus structure of traditional college courses to online learners. Video lectures, e-textbooks, and computer-scored tests are a staple of the format, sometimes served with a side-dish of group collaboration via forums or mailing lists. The multimedia aspect of these courses fills a niche for learners who get more from hearing and watching material than simply reading a textbook.

MOOCs also characterize one of the first, and strongest trends in e-learning: flexibility. You can take part from across the country or around the world, and to a greater or lesser extent timeshift to study whenever is most convenient.


Enter the E-Learning Platform

But many e-learning providers are going behind the traditional class structures and truly exploring the potential to deliver education tuned to more optimally engage individual learners.

These sites embrace the reality that each individual will have different requirements, from the beginning level of knowledge they bring to the subject, to the learning style which suits them best, to the degree of reinforcement required along the way.

These e-learning sites take flexibility to another level by offering content via apps that will work on any cell phone or tablet, further freeing students from a desk or office. uCertify, for example, offers a free app (although the courses themselves are not free) that allows users to take any of its more than 400 courses on their phone.


Putting the Learner in Charge of the Learning

Self-directed learning is another expression of the trend toward flexibility. Increasingly, self-education websites are allowing users to diverge from pre-programmed activities to actively seeking areas of knowledge they are interested in or feel to be most useful. This can vary between the now-common option for allowing users to begin at any level of difficulty in the subject matter and even more flexible approaches which allow users to branch off and dive into sub-specialties or associated subjects instead of locking them into a pre-defined scope. Studying jQuery on CodeAcademy and find out you didn’t know as much about CSS selectors as you thought? One click and you’re drilling down into that missing link to pick it up before you return right to where you left off in the jQuery lesson to finish up.

Adaptive learning is another important e-learning trend. Educators have long known that if a course is either too easy or too challenging for an individual, success rates drop off precipitously.

The newest e-learning techniques avoid both extremes. As you learn the content, the site is learning YOU; by evaluating your responses in real-time, algorithms can tailor subsequent questions to an appropriately challenging skill-level. No more wading through thirty softball questions because they were hardcoded; no frustration at not getting a single answer right because the test was too difficult. Sites can now pitch you questions which are complex enough to keep you engaged without being frustratingly difficult.


When Learning Becomes a (Really Fun) Game

It turns out that there is another online realm which has faced a similar challenge, and solved it successfully: gaming. Gamification is often mentioned as a trend in e-learning, but it might more appropriately be viewed as simply one aspect of adaptive learning. Borrowing approaches used by game designers to make their products engaging, e-learning sites are doing the same with what had historically been much drier fare.

Online games also offer another model that e-learning sites have begun to take advantage of: social interaction. This approach combines the best aspects of self-directed learning with the peer-support available in a class environment. Learning, after all, is not simply a matter of knowing the answers, but understanding why they are correct. Engagement with other users going through the same process can help provide that understanding by instantly making available a variety of perspectives on the question. Skillset’s assessment questions, which offer the ability for any user to comment and provide feedback, are a case in point.

If you look at where all these trends lead, curiously, you end up with something that looks a lot like Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia is not an e-learning website in the traditional sense of the term, the model used there which combines multimedia presentation, disparate third-party information sources, and interactive curation by users is one that encompasses many of the trends and best practices in e-learning today. It’s hard to argue that the site isn’t one of the top educational sites on the Internet by dint of numbers alone.


How to Tell You Learned the Right Things

The original problem remains, however. Wikipedia, and many other educational sites, are missing something critical: The ability to accurately assess the skill level of the user. Recording and proving level of knowledge is both a strong motivating factor and an important yardstick to be used in driving the learning process. Self-directed learning can become a quagmire if the user isn’t presented with accurate cues reflecting what has been adequately studied and what knowledge remains unabsorbed.

Similarly, adaptive learning can’t work without near real-time assessment of skill level and progression, such as Skillset offers. Our site’s “readiness meter” tells users exactly how close they are to being ready to pass a certification exam.

Finally, e-learning sites have learned that sometimes the best thing to do is simply to get out of the user’s way. Sites like Skillset and CodeAcademy have pioneered simple, clean interfaces and free material that allow you to dive right in to learning what you want to know — no fumbling with credit cards, no mental arithmetic, just getting right into what you need to know.

So what are you waiting for? Go learn!


Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson is a freelance writer and information technology management consultant with more than twenty years of experience. He has worked with industries as diverse as real estate, medicine, and maritime, and created and developed an e-learning site for English language learners and educators.

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