Close this search box.

The Ultimate Definition of eLearning

Whether you spell it eLearning, Elearning or e-Learning, the term is undeniably a common one. But we’ve found that it’s often used where it shouldn’t be. So the question is — what exactly is eLearning (and yep, that’s our spelling of choice!)?

As with email, e-commerce and eBooks, the ‘e’ stands for ‘electronic’. So when you talk about eLearning, you’re actually talking about ‘electronic learning’.

Simple enough? Well, no actually. There’s a lot of debate around what the term really means. So in this article, we’ll be clearing up the confusion! We’ll also take you through its background and some of the benefits of learning electronically. 

Let’s get going!

A Quick History Lesson

Let’s reverse a bit. The term ‘eLearning’ has actually only been around since 1999. It was originally coined by researcher, educator, conference host and friend of Growth Engineering, Elliot Masie. However, instances of eLearning are present a few decades prior to this.

The first can be traced back to a proto-LMS created by Sidney Pressey in 1924. It was deemed the first ‘teaching machine’. It looked like a simple typewriter with an additional display window. Learners had to input answers to multiple choice questions so they could progress.

In 1960, the first computer training programme was born. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) was created at the University of Illinois. Not only was it a successful teaching system but it also brought about one of the world’s first online communities. This expanded in the 1970s, as eLearning started to become more dynamic and interactive.

By the mid-1990s, the early iterations of the LMSs we know and love today started to spread. Naturally, with the rise of the internet and easier access to online technology, the eLearning market grew at pace. This was mainly driven by educational institutions, who were looking to create distance learning solutions for their students. 

Additionally, businesses started to use eLearning in their training initiatives. As a result, since the year 2000, the eLearning market has grown over 900%! Not bad, eh?

What About Now?

Coming back to the present, the eLearning market is now worth over a whopping $250 billion. It shows no signs of slowing down and is projected to be worth $1 trillion by 2027

Much of this growth can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic as many learning (amongst other things) shifted online. As such, many companies, schools, universities and other educational bodies have embraced digital transformation and are planning to make eLearning a permanent part of business as usual.

So, What Exactly Is eLearning?

Some use eLearning as an umbrella term to cover all types of learning which take place through digital media. However, there are some limitations. Not every learning experience that happens online is an eLearning experience.

For instance, if you read a Wikipedia article, or watch a ‘How to’ Youtube video it isn’t an eLearning experience. Unless they are included as part of a more formal learning programme.

When it comes to learning online, it’s important to make a distinction between content and platforms. Indeed, eLearning is most typically (and accurately) used to refer to any content included as part of an online or digital learning experience.

These structured units seek to achieve a set of learning objectives. And they are designed to be delivered to learners via electronic means. In other words, they are very clearly eLearning from the get-go.

Groups of units or modules, make up courses. Tie enough of these courses together and you have yourself an online learning programme. Whilst the parlance you or or your organisation use may be different, the general rules will remain consistent.

These units are typically interactive and can present the learner with a variety of text, audio, video and quizzes as they progress. Generally, you’ll find that someone creates an eLearning unit with an authoring tool. It’s then delivered to groups of learners through a learning management system (LMS), or other similar platforms.

Still struggling to make the distinction? Then check out this definition of eLearning from Oxford Home Study Centre:

‘The term ‘eLearning’ refers to the delivery of education and training through digital resources. Rather than attending lectures and classes in the conventional sense, eLearning uses modern technology to connect pupils and students with course content, learning resources and qualified tutors.’

How Does eLearning Differ from Other Similar Terms?

Now that we’ve defined eLearning, you may well be wondering how it contrasts with other similar terms. Unfortunately, the learning technology landscape is cluttered with a variety of ambiguous or unnecessary terms. Please consider the following list our attend to cut through the noise:

Online Learning

As you might expect, with online learning, the main element is the internet. Students learn in a completely virtual environment and learning can take place synchronously and/or asynchronously. In this sense, online learning is an umbrella term, incorporating virtual lectures, documents, assignments and the eLearning content experiences described above.

Virtual Learning

Virtual learning takes experiences that would have traditionally happened face-to-face, and transports them to a ‘virtual’ environment. For instance, instructor-led training via Skype, Zoom or Teams is a great example of virtual learning. The experience is either facilitated by or enhanced by the use of technology.

Digital Learning

This is a broad term that incorporates the use of any digital technology to facilitate learning experiences. This includes taking courses online, internet-based research or even using digital tools (like smartboards, mind maps, quizzes and so on).

Remote Learning

Remote learning is where the learner and instructor aren’t both physically present in a classroom environment. As with virtual learning, the learner doesn’t have to be in a set location to make progress. However, remote learning can take various forms. Furthermore, whilst it’s typically facilitated by the internet, it doesn’t have to be. For instance, you could conduct a remote learning programme via regular snail mail communications. 

Distance Learning

Similar to ‘remote learning’, distance learning implies a geographical distance between the instructor and the student. Technology is great for bridging this gap. This is a convenient approach for many students. As a result, a lot of universities are offering degrees in distance learning courses.

Why Should You Choose eLearning?

AI in learning and development: What is AI?More than 40% of Fortune 500 companies already use eLearning as a regular part of their training initiatives. This number is only set to keep growing. eLearning comes with a bunch of benefits and they’re the reason a lot of companies are making the switch. Here are just a few of them:

  • 72% of businesses say that eLearning is the key reason they’re ahead of their competitors.
  • 42% of companies report an increase in revenue after switching to eLearning. 
  • eLearning can help you retain five times more knowledge for each hour of learning compared to traditional lessons.
  • According to a study conducted by Britain’s Open University, online courses reduce energy consumption by up to 90% and produce 85% fewer CO2 emissions compared to face-to-face education.
  • 85% of learners rate their online learning experience as better, or at least equally as sufficient, as face-to-face classes.

Sounds compelling, right? But there’s more to eLearning than this. Let’s dig in further and look at why it’s such an effective approach:

1. It’s Flexible

Face-to-face training requires all learners to be in the same place at the same time. This can be incredibly restrictive. eLearning allows for freedom. Freedom to complete content whenever it may suit you. And freedom to access content from wherever you may be.

For example, with online/offline sync, learners can download content while they have internet access. This content can then be completed when on the move or when their internet connection is down. Once online again, the online learning solution synchronises the results — just like magic!

This means that learners are now able to fit training around their schedule and learn at their own pace. This is even easier due to the advancement of mobile technology. If your LMS is mobile-responsive, or if you have a mobile app solution, eLearning can take place in the form of mobile learning.

It makes sense that this is rapidly becoming the modern learner’s choice of device. In fact, 52% of learners use mobile learning right after waking up!

2. It’s Time and Cost-Effective

Improve Bottom LineFace-to-face training requires a venue, travel costs, accommodation and many more expenses. This is all eradicated with eLearning. Of course, it’s not free! However, it’s significantly cheaper. Did you know that the average company saves 50%-70% by moving from face-to-face training to eLearning?

Here’s a great example. IBM conducted a study to find out the true value of workplace learning. They found that every dollar invested in online training results in $30 in productivity. That’s because online learners are able to learn faster and at their own pace. As a result, they saved $200 million once they switched to eLearning.

eLearning is also generally completed quicker than in-person training experiences. For example, a study by the Brandon Hall Group found that online learning takes 40-60% less time to finish than classroom-based courses. Furthermore, a survey of over 700 corporate learners found that 87% preferred to take online courses because they were quicker.

3. It’s Easy to Report On

With eLearning, everything is handled through a learning platform (such as an LMS), which means it can be reported on. Every learner activity is recorded, from logins to content completions, so you end up with a complete picture of your training initiative. 

Indeed, 82% of organisations maintain that reporting is vital for improving their eLearning approaches. But why is that?

Well, a functional Reporting Suite is great for tailoring eLearning content to your learners and reflecting on previous content. For example, you may look at your reports and see low completion rates for a module. You can then send out user surveys to find out the problem and then rewrite the learning content. 

This ensures that learners complete eLearning content that’s actually relevant to them and that content production time isn’t wasted. 

With effective reporting, you can easily tie eLearning to business impact. For example, one of our Fortune 500 clients was able to directly link a 20% increase in revenue to their mobile app solution.

Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to move away from paper trails and manually-updated spreadsheets?

4. It’s Consistent

With eLearning you can deliver the same content to everyone, ensuring that the same standard of training is delivered everywhere.

When you rely solely on face-to-face training, you entrust your learning programme to a number of trainers. Some will be fantastic and be able to inspire your learners. But there could be a number who fall short and don’t deliver a comprehensive session.

When using eLearning, you’re in control. With an authoring tool, you’re in charge of the content from start to finish. As a result, you’re able to share the same high quality learning experience with each and every learner. And your eLearning course will never call in sick, or have a ‘bad day at the office’. 

In a study of 283 learners across different sectors, Training Industry found that consistent training initiatives make learners: 

  • Much more engaged with their learning.
  • Incredibly motivated to work on their skills.
  • A lot more satisfied with their roles.
  • And more in tune with the benefits that training provides for them.

5. It’s Wide-Reaching and Inclusive

Do you have learners spread across the country, or perhaps even the world? Delivering face-to-face training on this scale is a Herculean task. In some cases, it’s simply unfeasible. It can be difficult to arrange, and extremely expensive to implement.

However, learners can access an eLearning course regardless of where they might be. 

Furthermore, a widely spread learner population often means a lot of different languages. This can create communication boundaries and cultural misunderstandings, which cost businesses more than $2 billion annually. With eLearning, gone are the days where some learners had to miss out or where content had to be painstakingly translated (often at great expense). 

Good online learning solutions can instantly translate your eLearning content into another language. This will improve engagement with the platform, as it creates a sense of familiarity for your learners. It also eases communication, which can improve productivity by 25-35%.

6. It Comes in a Variety of Formats

These days, learners have access to a wide range of multimedia outside of their learning environment. So why shouldn’t their learning experiences be the same?

An online learning platform means you can incorporate video, images, PDFs and more into learning activities. This broadens the definition of what ‘eLearning’ can be. It also makes learners much more willing to engage and remain engaged. 

For example, studies show that websites that use videos have an extra two-minute dwell time on average compared to those that don’t. Moreover, according to Forrester Research, employees are 75% more likely to watch a video. Lastly, let’s not forget that the use of video also increases memory retention!


At Growth Engineering, all of our online learning solutions make use of gamification. This includes any eLearning content created via our Authoring Tool. This helps to improve engagement. Indeed, a Deloitte study found that a staggering 80% of workers believe that game-based learning is more engaging than classroom-based learning.

The game mechanics we use include Battles, Experience Points, Levels and Streaks. All of which would be hard to simulate in real life. These mechanics work to improve knowledge retention and intrinsic motivation.


The modern learner likes things short and snappy. As such, eLearning and microlearning make for great partners. This is where learners consume information in bite-sized chunks rather than long courses. This makes eLearning experiences more ‘snackable’ and easier to consume. 

Learners respond to this training approach really well. Indeed, 94% of experts state that learners actually prefer bite-size learning.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that microlearning actually increases how effective learning is by 17%. This is because microlearning eases memory retention. 

It’s much easier to consume bite-size content with spaced-repetition, than trying to cram in lots of information through one classroom session. As a matter of fact, research by RPS demonstrates that microlearning improves long-term retention by 80%!

7. It’s All about You

Some learners want their training content to cater directly to their wants and needs. And that’s okay! With eLearning, you can take advantage of our world’s ever advancing technology. This includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI)

AI personalises learning for each individual learner. It can customise your units, tailor visibility settings and control the delivery mechanism.

For example, AI can use learners’ personal information to control what content they have access to. This is similar to how Netflix recommends content based on what you’ve previously watched.

Centering the learning experience around your learners does a world of good. In fact, four out of five L&D professionals see a correlation between personalised learning and improved learner engagement.

Final Words

eLearning is a tricky term to define. Unfortunately, it’s not the only industry jargon that seems purpose-built to trip people up. Luckily, we’ve got a jargon-busting glossary ready for you to enjoy.

Now we’ve defined eLearning and how it relates to the wider world of digital learning. We’ve also laid out some of the many benefits relating to adopting eLearning throughout your training approach. So what’s next?

Why not embrace eLearning yourself? If you’d like to see our best-in-class eLearning solutions in action, then please get in touch. Please follow this link to find more details and to begin your eLearning journey!

Like What You're Reading? Join the Growth Squad!

Subscribe now to receive exclusive access to our weekly newsletter. It’s packed full of the best L&D research, analysis and downloadable resources.

Table of Contents

Share Post

Read More About L&D, Online Learning

Like What You're Reading? Join the Growth Squad!

Subscribe now to receive exclusive access to our weekly newsletter. It’s packed full of the best L&D research, analysis and downloadable resources.


Unlock The World’s Most Impactful L&D Resources!

Our unrivalled treasure trove of white papers, research, tip sheets, infographics and more gives you all the L&D knowledge you need to start making an impact today. Happy exploring!

We are always working to improve your experience on our website. Part of this involves using cookies to collect data for statistics and personalization. Further information can be found in our Privacy Policy and Cookies Policy.