As different as the possible spellings of eLearning are, as divergent are the terms used in academic discourse, some of which are synonymous. In principle, eLearning (electronic learning), computer-based learning or multimedia learning is understood to mean teaching and learning with the help of various digital media . This use of digital technologies enables the integration of interactive and multicodal forms of presentation such as texts, images and animations, which are perceived by the learners multimodally, i.e. across several senses. The application of e-learning offers, which can be used both as independent online lessons and as a supplement to conventional teaching in the form of so-called blended learning, is also complex .
If one takes a broader view of the term eLearning and also includes machine-based learning, the beginnings of eLearning can be found in the USA in the 20th century with the introduction of programmed instruction . At that time, the behaviourist paradigm shaped psychological research, according to which knowledge and behaviour could be learned at will by means of conditioning . From this perspective, Burrhus F. Skinner, one of the leading behaviourists, developed a machine in 1958 that took over the tasks of the teacher in that it presented mostly segmented texts to the learners and then tested their memory performance, for example, by means of cloze tests . Following the behaviourist idea, good learning results were rewarded with sweets. Later electronic learning offers, i.e. e-learning offers in the narrower sense, are not based on specially developed devices, but are used via personal computers or as web applications.
The advent of early home PCs and their increasing popularity at the end of the last millennium also paved the way for electronic learning offerings. These technical achievements enabled the development of non-linear learning materials in the form of e.g. digital tutorials or web-based trainings, where the focus is no longer on reducing the workload of teachers, but on adaptivity with regard to the individual needs of the learners . In particular, the increasing popularity of hypertext, i.e. text that contains links to other texts, promoted self-direction in learning environments. In this way, depending on existing prior knowledge, text can be skipped or read up on if there are gaps in knowledge. Today’s e-learning formats are also strongly oriented towards popular media such as podcasts, YouTube videos, weblogs and learning games, in addition to the already existing formats.
The areas of application of eLearning offerings reflect the diversity and variability of this form of teaching and learning. Despite the latest technical possibilities, the predominantly used form of digital learning media today is still the classic website, which is enriched with (hyper-)text and other media forms such as videos, graphics, simulations, animations and other interactive modules. However, learning games (so-called serious games) alone and virtual reality applications can also constitute eLearning offerings. The most relevant areas of application of digital learning media are briefly presented below.
In the academic context, teaching/learning platforms, so-called learning content management systems, are used to make course materials or literature recommendations available, but also to implement interactive elements such as control questions. Students can actively contribute to learning materials through the integration of wikis, for example. With the pandemic requirements of distance learning, many universities switched to fully online formats: lectures are either made available as video files or held digitally via video conferencing systems .
The digitisation of schools in Germany is proceeding more slowly than at universities and colleges. This circumstance became clearly apparent during the closure of schools due to the pandemic, as the changeover to distance learning was accompanied by numerous problems, some of which were so severe that digital learning offerings could not even be made available . Other schools that have actively embraced and shaped the digital transformation before the pandemic often rely on more complex software such as Microsoft Teams, which provides a solution for digital classrooms, for example.
ELearning offerings are also used in the corporate context, and here in particular in corporate training; e.g. for internal training, which can be used regardless of location and time and can be scaled as desired. International corporations also benefit from the easy adaptability of digital learning materials, as the basic structures can be used across locations or countries, for example, and only require translation.
Furthermore, digital learning opportunities are also very popular in private contexts. Anyone who wants to acquire a skill in their free time, such as how to renew a bicycle drive or change the strings on a guitar, will probably seek quick relief from web videos or web forums. There are also smartphone apps for learning foreign languages and plant care tips can be found on weblogs.
Research on digital learning media is anchored at the interface of psychology, pedagogy and computer science. A large number of studies are based on theories such as Cognitive Load Theory  or the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning . Based on the limited capacity of working memory, these theories postulate a connection between the design of learning materials and cognitive load, whereby an overload of working memory is accompanied by a reduction in learning performance. Numerous experimental studies have led to the development of so-called design effects. An example of these effects is the modality effect, which states that the working memory load can be reduced if several sensory modalities are addressed at the same time . Accordingly, it makes sense to present explanations of complicated graphics via spoken text – and not via written explanations. The latter option would also not be optimal with regard to the so-called split-attention effect, since attention would have to switch between image and text during learning and relevant areas would have to be stored temporarily in the working memory .
Other research focuses on affective and motivational issues. While the presentation of personalised texts can increase the motivation of learners, learning games seem to be more effective while the presentation of personalised texts can increase the motivation of learners, learning games do not seem to have any influence on motivation, despite their general facilitation of learning .
In the bidt project “MOTIV – Digital Interaction Competence: Monitor, Training and Visibility“, adaptive e-learning modules are being developed to strengthen digital competences in dealing with speech-based interactive assistants.
Criticism and problems
Criticism that is voiced in the subject area of eLearning refers predominantly to aspects that tend to suggest poor implementation of digital teaching/learning offerings and less to characteristics of the concept of digital teaching per se. And indeed: According to several studies, the choice of learning medium has no significant influence on learning performance . A basic problem is the misconception that e-learning is in principle a substitute for face-to-face teaching, although mixed forms such as blended learning do exist. A web-based training can be used in a classroom setting, just like a textbook – with the advantage that this programme can adaptively respond to the needs of the learners depending on existing prior knowledge or other characteristics. Communication channels can also be implemented in principle in the form of e.g. online chats, video chats or pedagogical agents . The disadvantage of demotivation can also be reduced by interactive elements and metacognitive cues (prompts) . However, such measures are a question of resources, as the development of adaptive and interactive modules is cost-intensive. In addition, many teachers have little expertise in designing digital learning media in a way that promotes learning, and schools shy away from hiring external e-learning agencies. In summary, it can be said that the disregard of empirically proven design recommendations is a fundamental problem in the development of digital learning offers.
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