Going to get me some learnin’

Coining the term eLearning was the beginning of a problem that is the root of the issue in Tony’s post, where he looks for better terms to describe different interventions, suggesting ePerformance.

And the answer is that there is not a well known term to describe kinds of eLearning solutions that are not typical courseware. I talked about definitions of eLearning a while ago and the basic conclusion I came to is that when you say the term, while it could mean a wide variety of possible solutions – most people think of formal training delivered electronically (virtual classroom, courseware).

The term elearning has been co-opted, especially by software vendors, to only mean courses online, when it could mean much more. However, if one wants to really question our terms and definitions, there is an inherent flaw in using the word “learning” anyway. More accurate descriptors of our various endeavours would be instruction, training, education or performance improvement. I don’t see any great value in creating new terms for interventions that don’t help with our understanding.

For education and training via the Internet we have courses online, and can further describe these as synchronous, asynchronous, instructor-led, facilitated, collaborative, etc.

Barry Raybould’s 1991 definition of performance support as “a computer-based system that improves worker productivity by providing on-the-job access to integrated information, advice, and learning experiences“, only needs to be updated to include network-based systems.


I’ve used the above diagram before to show how I describe the difference between instructional and non-instructional interventions, with the course being a prime example of an instructional intervention while an information job aid is a good example of a non-instructional intervention. Allison Rossett, in Job Aids and Performance Support, provides this definition:

A helper in life and work, performance support is a repository for information, processes, and perspectives that inform and guide planning and action.

Rossett’s definition could easily describe communities of practice or personal knowledge management as performance support. I believe that the main reason behind any confusion in our terms is because we used learning and elearning to describe what is really instruction. There is a clear difference between instruction (whether it be in the form of training or education) and performance support. We don’t really need a new term, we need to get rid of the old one – learning – which is an internal process and cannot be something that is done to us externally. And yes, I am also guilty of using the term learning inappropriately.

8 Responses to “Going to get me some learnin’”

  1. Gilbert

    Harold says…”We don’t really need a new term, we need to get rid of the old one – learning – which is an internal process and cannot be something that is done to us externally.”

    Gilbert says……Yes. Yes. Yes.

    When we think in terms of “learning” we come up with strange solutions to problems that are instructional in nature.

    Also interesting is the fact that we often confuse “self-instruction” and learning.


  2. Mark Berthelemy

    In the UK we tend not to use the term “instruction”. Instead we use “teaching” to mean a similar (but not identical) thing.

    But what’s the point of instruction/teaching without learning? I suppose you could say they are independent, in that learning relies on the individual being motivated to change an opinion, their behaviour, or the way they think.

    But then isn’t that part of the role of the instructor/teacher – to provide some level of extrinsic motivation, and to help the learner develop intrinsic motivation.

    BTW. Brilliant diagram – really useful

    PS. Not sure if this comment is going to be duplicated, the script timed out when I posted it first time.

  3. Guy Boulet

    You got it right. As you say, learning is an internal process. It can happen in many ways, not only through instruction or training. I learned just by reading your post. Was it training? Instruction? Performance support? No it was simply learning.

    Learning just happens. It may be planned and structured but this is not a requirement to learn. In fact, learning the hard way is normally neither planned nor structured.

    Therefore, the problem is not the terminology, but the semantic. Just because some people call computer based training e-learning, it does not mean that all e-learning is computer based training.

    In my mind, e-learning refers to any learning that happens through information technolgy. Like reading your blog…

  4. Gilbert

    I believe that Harold’s posting touches much more than a question of semantics.

    When we focus on learning (internal) rather than on external activities such as teaching/instruction, there is a danger of becoming caught up in something that we can’t really measure. We can also easily disrupt natural processes because we try to mold natural thinking/learning processes to theorical processes.

    Those who focus on learning also tend to value some forms of learning over other forms. If you can’t think of examples you have been focusing on learning rather than on teaching.

    We can also easily fall in the trap of labeling people with learning disabilities when it is the instructional methods that are not working.

    Similar dangers exists for those involved in organizational change and for those who are building the technologies of tomorrow.

    The black box approach has proven successful in many other fields so I tend to believe it can applied to education.

  5. Dave F.

    Happy new year, Harold, and lang may yer lum reek.

    Your diagram nicely depicts possible responses to performance problems. What’s more, you’ve captured something about “learning” that’s bothered me for a while.

    Learning is always internal — that’s where the neurons live. Externals, like web pages and ergonomic tools and consultants, can have some influence on whether learning is more or less likely, but there’s no direct relationship.

    Nuance, of course, doesn’t have much of a constituency in large organizations, so we get Learning Management Systems that are mainly FTDs (file/track/display). Nothing wrong with filing, tracking, and displaying, if that’s what you want to do — but as we ought to have, um, learned, those don’t necessarily result in learning.

    “Long may your chimney smoke,” a traditional Scots wish for good things.

  6. Karyn Romeis

    If you read my comment on Tony’s post, you’ll see that I am equally frustrated by the notion of e-learning as a course, with a predefined path for users to follow.

    I do understand the argument that we need to indicate when we propose to deliver some learning resources via electronic means, but, by the same token, I can’t help wondering how helpful it is to distinguish between learning modalities and instructional delivery media. Doesn’t that ensure that elearning will remain a “thing” rather than just becoming a normal, integral part of a larger whole?

  7. Harold

    Perhaps the only way for elearning not to be a thing is for it to be recognised as a personal process that can be enhanced by “things” such as instruction or performance support. In that way, elearning is what we (“learning professionals”) support, not what we do or create.

  8. Gilbert

    E-Learning, E-gov,E-health may very well be fabrications with very little relationship to the real world.

    The E prefix was more marketing than anything else. This is probably the best example of “Smoke and Mirrors” that
    I have seen so far. We also heard of words like E-Crap to describe what some called E-Learning.

    So I would say that the way for elearning not to be a THING is for it to be recognized as the publicity stunt it was.

    To me it is just Learning, Health, Government etc. “Knowledge and Technological” advances have always played a role in these and
    they always will.

    A rose by any other name is still a rose. However, I believe that managers and
    governmental organizations reaction to the invention of the word E-Learning,E-gov, E-health is a sign that our leaders do not understand how to manage technological or other types of change.

    Technology is not the opportunity. Technology is not the threat. Change is the opportunity and threat.


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