Why the E-Learning Boom Went Bust
By ROBERT ZEMSKY and WILLIAM F. MASSY
Five years ago e-learning was everybody's buzz, offering the promise of a
trillion-dollar market wrapped around the prospect of learning anytime,
anywhere. All that is gone, replaced by a pervading sense of
disappointment. In fact, e-learning is increasingly the butt of bad jokes,
as in, "Can you imagine telling your children to go to their rooms and
study college for four years?" The cynics have had a field day, claiming
that e-learning has been just one more fad, little more than a reprise of
the dot-coms' bursting bubble, exhibiting more hype than substance.
To dismiss e-learning as laughable, however, is to miss the point.
Examining why e-learning hasn't lived up to its promise is a critical first
step toward understanding how technologies are likely to influence our
educational processes now and in the future. While all innovations
overpromise, why were the claims about e-learning so extravagantly off the
mark? What made e-learning such an attractive investment to both those who
contributed sweat equity and those who contributed venture capital? Did
e-learning simply flame out upon takeoff? Or should we take a more
optimistic, yet more patient and long-term, view?
E-learning's early promise was most often reflected in three basic beliefs,
each of which turned out to be wrong:
If we build it, they will come. As with most innovations, the entrepreneurs
who developed e-learning simply assumed that the results of the first
applications would attract other experimenters, and eventually engage
professors and students throughout academe. Most early experiments involved
the creation of programming modules, or "learning objects," that enabled
instructors to embed a rich variety of materials into their courses.
Examples range from simple compressed video presentations to complex
interactive simulations. Some offerings, like VirtualU, a full-scale
simulation that allows the learner to manage an entire university, are
large; others are much smaller, allowing the learner, for example, to
practice giving a physical examination by listening for irregular heart
The best place to track learning objects is the Web site of Merlot, an
acronym that stands for Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and
Online Teaching, where individual experimenters post their projects. What
one learns from reviewing the information on Merlot is that no "dominant
design" in course objects -- the kind of standard format that is almost
universally characteristic of successful innovations -- has yet emerged.
In the realm of campus technology, the best-known dominant designs are
those that shaped spreadsheet software, beginning with VisiCalc, proceeding
through Lotus-1-2-3, and ending with Microsoft's Excel. Yet dominant
designs have emerged in just two of e-learning's many dimensions:
PowerPoint for course-enhancement materials and Blackboard, WebCT, and
other course-management software for the distribution of class materials.
For the most part, professors still have no sense that if "I know how to
use one learning object I basically know how to use all or most learning
objects in my field." Instead of rhyme and reason, the faculty member
encounters what Carol Twigg, the executive director of the Center for
Academic Transformation, calls a "hope-for-the-best strategy" of transfer
and dissemination: a large supply of largely untested learning materials
that are often too specialized or dependent on the specific demands of a
particular curriculum. In short, most professors find the wide range of
e-learning tools too confusing for them to use on a broad basis.
The kids will take to e-learning like ducks to water. Three years ago, most
professors or staff members would have been nearly unanimous in their
assessment of whether students would be able to engage in computer-based
learning -- as part of a course either on the Internet or in a classroom
using an electronic course-management system or learning objects. Indeed,
they would be incredulous that you made such an inquiry. When we posed that
question to professors and administrators in the fall of 2001, we were
regularly told: "Not a problem. After all, the kids love games and
technology and are dismissive of professors who seem to have trouble
navigating Blackboard and who think that PowerPoint is state of the art."
But what we've found since then is that the same people aren't so sure. As
part of a three-year research project, sponsored by the University of
Pennsylvania, we established electronic observation posts that tracked and
analyzed the changing attitudes of the people responsible for e-learning at
six colleges with reputations for investing in e-learning: Foothill
College, Hamilton College in New York, Michigan State University, Northwest
Missouri State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the
University of Texas at Austin.
Half of those we monitored were technical staff members responsible for
supporting the introduction of e-learning on their campuses. The other half
were faculty members, usually among their institutions' early adopters of
e-learning. Over the course of a single year, nearly one in four of those
interviewed changed their minds as to how satisfied students would be if
e-learning were substituted for classroom instruction.
Last spring we revisited three of the campuses -- Austin, Foothill, and
Hamilton -- and asked again why so many people had changed their minds.
Their answers reflected a growing recognition that the initial assumptions
about e-learning must be modified by actual experience -- as well as a
sense that no one had ever asked the students whether or
not they actually liked e-learning.
On the Austin campus, we gained a valuable insight into why the students'
attraction to computer games and their quick adoption of most
computer-based technologies did not translate into an interest in
e-learning. One of the senior managers of the University Co-op, the campus
bookstore, told us to observe "the kind of software the kids are buying."
We did, checking with the bookstores on each campus we visited and then
turning to The Chronicle's feature on the "Best-Selling Software at College
The results: Beyond Microsoft's basic suite of office products and the
leading antivirus software, the best sellers' most common quality is that
they allow their purchasers to prepare and distribute complex
presentations. Adobe Photoshop, for example, is used for editing,
enhancing, and optimizing photos, and Macromedia Dreamweaver MX allows the
user to construct sophisticated Web sites. Or, as the manager of the Texas
Co-op told us, the most popular software among students is principally
about showing off.
The implication, borne out in subsequent interviews, is that students' fascination with computers and software has three
major components. They want to be connected, principally to one another.
They want to be entertained by games, music, and movies. And they want to
present themselves and their work . As most faculty members in
America have learned, students have become almost obsessively adroit at
"souping up" their papers, which they submit electronically and which they
festoon with illustrations, charts, and animation. One frustrated professor
who had just spent a half-hour downloading a student's term paper was heard
to remark, "All I wanted was a simple 20-page paper. What I got looks
suspiciously like the outline for a TV show."
Most early promoters of e-learning simply missed the
students' devotion to complex presentations of self. The students they saw
in their mind's eye were gamers who would love simulations, who would view
the computer as a tool for problem solving, who would immediately embrace
e-learning. And in fact some students do just that. For the most part,
however, they are concentrated in engineering schools.
E-learning will force a change in how we teach. Few processes have proved
more resistant to fundamental change than the basic function of higher
education. Most faculty members today teach as they were taught -- they
stand in the front of a classroom providing lectures intended to supply the
basic knowledge students need. Yet people in higher education who envision
a changed, more-responsive learning environment have argued that the
classroom works best when it is participatory. Students become effective
problem solvers only when they have mastered the art of critical thinking
and have acquired the discipline necessary to be self-paced learners.
Constant assessment and feedback are critical, so that both student and
instructor can determine, before it is too late, whether the student is
mastering the necessary material.
E-learning seemed more than ready to satisfy each of those goals. In fully
integrated e-learning courses, faculty members are not presenters -- unless
they have filmed themselves performing an experiment or conducting a
simulation and made those images available on their students' computers.
Rather, they are guides, designers, mentors, and conveners. Feedback is
immediate and continuous. Students know if they have the right answer or
are at least proceeding in the right direction as soon as they submit
responses to assigned problems.
What the designers of successful e-learning courses also learn is that
there can be no hidden assumptions: The introduction of new topics, the
pace, and other ways of teaching are based on the feedback from students,
not on one's intuition or past experience.
That's the promise. What's the reality? For the most part,
faculty members use the electronics to simplify tasks, not to fundamentally
change how they teach their subjects. They readily translate lecture
notes into PowerPoint presentations. They use course-management tools like
Blackboard and WebCT to distribute class materials, grades, and
assignments. But the materials are simply scanned, and the assignments
neither look nor feel different. Even when the textbook comes with an
interactive CD-ROM, or when the publisher makes the same material available
on a proprietary Web site, most faculty members do not assign it. Only modest breakthroughs have occurred -- in the use of e-mail
to communicate rapidly and directly with students and in the adoption of
computerized testing materials.
Indeed, many people believe that the rapid introduction of
course-management tools has actually reduced e-learning's impact on the way
most faculty members teach. Blackboard and WebCT make it almost too easy
for professors to transfer their standard teaching materials to the Web.
While Blackboard's promotional materials talk about enabling faculty
members to use a host of new applications, the specific promises that the
software makes to potential users are less dramatic: the ability for them
"to manage their own Internet-based file space on a central system and to
collect, share, discover, and manage important materials from articles and
research papers to presentations and multimedia files." All that professors
need to use the product are the rudimentary electronic-library skills that
most have already mastered. Blackboard and WebCT allow the faculty users,
when asked, "Are you involved in e-learning?" to respond, "Yes, my courses
are already online!"
The rapid introduction of PowerPoint as e-learning's principal
course-enhancement tool tells much the same story. PowerPoint is
essentially "electronic clip art" -- it allows the instructor to import
graphics from other media, including old lecture notes. Yet illustrated
lectures do not constitute electronically mediated learning.
Even the most adventurous and committed faculty members often approach
e-learning in ways that lessen its general impact on the curriculum. The
colleges that participated in our study enticed professors to experiment
with e-learning by providing extra technical support and extra compensation
-- most often in the form of a summer salary -- and by giving them the
opportunity to develop their e-learning course on any subject of interest
to them. With that level of institutional investment, most of the courses
were well designed, technically sophisticated, and -- given the faculty
members' freedom to teach what they wanted -- idiosyncratic. But once the
course had been offered for two or three years, professors often moved on
to other topics and different experiments, having satisfied their interests
and curiosity. Then the courses died -- simply because no one wanted to
teach someone else's e-learning syllabus.
In fact, the colleges discovered that they constantly had to give
professors extra incentives to sustain their interest in e-learning. When
the incentive programs became too expensive, the institutions dropped them
and witnessed a general decline of e-learning adoptions and experiments.
All but forgotten, by then, was the idea that e-learning might lead to a
general reformation of both teaching and learning styles.
In retrospect, the rush to e-learning produced too many new ventures
pushing too many untested products -- products that, in their initial form,
turned out not to deliver as much value as promised. And although
e-learning's inevitable bust had many aftereffects, perhaps the most
dangerous has been that the experience has jaundiced academe's view of the
fundamental value of electronically mediated instruction. The hard fact is
that e-learning took off before people really knew how to use it and before
anything like a dominant design was even on the horizon. Missing was a
proven knowledge base of sufficient breadth to persuade faculty members
that adaptation was necessary. As a result, e-learning entrepreneurs
assumed a much higher level of risk than they bargained for -- and not
surprisingly, most ended up paying the price.
For e-learning to come closer to fulfilling its potential, those who
promote and support it should talk less and deliver more. E-learning's
early adopters must understand that their success depends as much on the
context in which they operate as on the power of the technologies they
promote. Ultimately, the future of e-learning is linked to
the pace of educational change and reform; that means that the full
potential of electronically mediated instruction will not be realized
unless and until large numbers of faculty members come to believe that they
should substantially improve the educational quality of their instruction,
especially for undergraduates.
At the same time, e-learning requires a dominant design, particularly for
the learning objects that are its building blocks -- making them not only
easier to create but also more interchangeable and easily linked with one
another. It helps to think of a railroad marshaling yard in which the cars
are the learning objects being assembled behind locomotives that are the
user-interface drivers of an efficient e-learning system. The marshaling
yard works only if all the cars have the same gauge and matching couplers.
For a dominant design to emerge will probably require one or more of the
principal vendors of course-management systems to make a substantial
investment in standardization.
In addition, e-learning designers should more carefully determine what
students expect from e-learning, based on how they've used other
technologies. How can we motivate students to learn using new electronic
products? What do students really want?
Higher education also needs to develop a catalog of lessons we have
learned. Equally important is the need for a more realistic mapping of the
obstacles that must be overcome in terms of the technology and the market
conditions necessary for growth. Our hope is that our report, "Thwarted
Innovation: What Happened to E-Learning and Why" (available at
is a first step in that direction, but other efforts must follow.
Finally, for progress to become self-sustaining, a substantial number of
ventures must generate enough revenue to sustain innovation without
continuous infusions of capital. Nothing will succeed like success.
Over the next decade, advancement in e-learning is likely to be slow,
probably best described as plodding. The technology's skeptics, emboldened
by the fact that, to date, its failures have been much more prominent than
its limited successes, will challenge each new product and innovation. Yet
despite the difficulties of the recent years, we count ourselves among the
optimists who believe electronically mediated instruction can eventually
become a standard mode of instruction. E-learning is still alive and
kicking. On most campuses, money is being spent, smart classrooms are being
built, and faculty members are experimenting with new ways of bringing
electronically mediated learning into the classroom. Ultimately, the lure
of learning anytime anywhere will prove irresistible.
Robert Zemsky is an education professor and chairman of the Learning
Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania. William F. Massy is a professor
emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University
and president of the Jackson Hole Higher Education Group.