The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of E-learning in the COVID Era

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of E-learning in the COVID Era

By Dr. Christopher Washington and Dr. Karen Miner-Romanoff

The COVID-19 Pandemic was a disruptive event at such a scale as to necessitate a Great Global Lockdown, mobilizing entire nations to practice social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus. The shutdown forced a rethinking of nearly every learning and workplace ecosystem on the planet. According to UNICEF—134 countries implemented nationwide closures of schools and workplaces. School closures alone impacted approximately 1.725 billion learners, leading many organizations and institutions worldwide to scramble to offer e-learning as an emergency remote alternative to educating students and training employees in traditional locations.

Prior to the global pandemic, e-learning tools and methods were increasingly being adopted in both academic and corporate settings. According to Values Reports, the global Academic E-learning Market size was 103.8 Billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.23% during 2019 – 2025. In the U.S., the proportion of all students who took at least one course online grew to 33.1 percent, from 31.1 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. Similarly, the global corporate e-learning market has been growing year over year. The corporate e-learning market size was 64.4 billion in 2019 and was expected to grow by a CAGR of 9.16% during 2019 – 2025. Increasingly, large businesses are turning to e-learning methods as a way to train their employees in ways that reduce costs, provide anytime and anywhere access to worldwide resources, and to administer and control events and calendars from various locations.

Fast forward to 2020 and the great lockdown. The rapid and unexpected adoption of e-learning by so many institutions shed light on a number of learning ecosystem issues unfavorably impacting the shift to e-learning. These issues include: resource inequalities across societies, organizations, and individuals; uneven adoption of digital innovation cycles; and variability in organizational capability to design and implement emergency remote learning in both schools and workplaces. As a consequence, these issues have spawned a significant number of disapproving public opinions about the use and effectiveness of e-learning, which in turn, disproportionately impact those who lack access to a quality education. As Alexis De Tocqueville once quipped over 200 years ago, “the power of public opinion could either result in a constructive or baneful force.” So too is modern public opinion in setting the tone and limits in which governments, workplaces and schools, and ultimately learners come to view e-learning. Sadly, the line of socio-technological progress does notalways bend in a desirable direction.

As former E-learning! Magazine Champions, we believe that now is a crucial time for e-learning to become a major movement in education and training delivery. In order to advance the practice of e-learning, it must overcome the divergent public opinions about its effectiveness. So we asked ourselves a number of questions about the potential future of e-learning emerging out of this disruptive and transitory period.

These questions include: “how might we intelligently contemplate the potential of e-learning as a pillar of future lifelong learning in a changing world? Under what conditions can e-learning practitioners overcome divergent public opinions due to differences in access to education, lack of knowledge of best practices, and ineffective implementation? 

In our enthusiasm we facilitated focus groups of experts to solicit their ideas about a more desirable future for education in support of the UNESO “Futures of Education” Initiative. As Figure 1. Illustrates, we identified a number of vital questions at the societal, organizational, school and individual levels that could lead to either a precarious or preferred future for e-learning depending on how public opinions and attitudes sway. By contemplating a polarity of possible futures relating to these questions, we aim to help e-learning advocates and practitioners anticipate dispositional roadblock and to contemplate potential e-learning adoption strategies in an unknown future. Presented below are our thoughts on a more precarious (tragedy by public opinion) scenario and a more preferred (triumphant) scenario evolving out of our current condition.

Figure 1

The “Tragedy by Public Opinion” Scenario

In this near future scenario, there continues to be debate in many parts of the world concerning whether or not education is a common good. As an unresolved matter, access to education and subsequent human competence remains a function of socio-economic privilege. There continues to be cultural, political and economic resistance to adopting e-learning across societies. There is uneven private and public funding for e-learning based on local funding policies and the related wealth or poverty of citizens in local communities. Many communities around the world remain digital deserts, lacking the technological infrastructure to provide citizens with high speed access to the internet. As a private good, there is a greater movement towards privatization and monetization of learning platforms and educational content with an emphasis on “pay to access” options. Education platforms are increasingly localized, connected to closed regional, learning or professional communities, resulting in the reinforcement of deeply held beliefs within local communities. Online platforms and tools provide virtual experiences that uncritically reinforce local cultural assumptions, ideas, and perspectives. 

Across schools, colleges and universities, and workplaces there remains mixed views about the value of e-learning as a method of efficient, market-driven, and effective education and training. Learning programs reset after the pandemic to favor those who can be physically present to participate. Schools, universities, and employers fail to consider digital innovation cycles and their resultant impact on inequity in teaching and learning. The learning data generated by sophisticated learning management systems remains underutilized by educators as a tool to prove the value of e-learning methods. Authorization, accreditation, and regulatory practices designed to assure and advance the quality of e-learning programs are rigid and slow to adapt to the rapid disruption cycles of digital innovation in both learning technologies and workplace practices. Increasing proliferation of independent learning technology platforms and learning applications make it more difficult for organizational leaders to foster inter-organizational cooperation and collaborations. Independent development of learning platforms crystalize borders between k-12 schools, post-secondary institutions, and workplace organization.

E-learning continues to be valued by those who are more comfortable with technology, have access to digital resources, and participate in communities and organizations that invest in and support e-learning. Without a commitment to employing learning designers, curriculum design quality and instructional practices are largely a function of product features and instructor preferences. Long time educators resist adopting emerging e-learning technologies into their teaching and learning process. While many e-learning systems are equipped to collect data that can inform the analysis of peak learning environments, few are skilled enough to use them. Many organizations fail to create the infrastructure and training programs to assure teachers, faculty and trainers are competent in the use of instructional technologies.

There continues to be a lack of sensitivity to how evolving technologies can best meet the needs of diverse learners. There remains great gaps between what people learn and what is required of them at the next stage of education and work. Consequently, many youth will not reach their personal and professional goals or potential, as their home address largely determines their attitudes about education, their access to educational opportunities, and the resources available to them. As a result, many high potential individuals remain trapped in poverty, deprivation and insecurity.

The “Triumphant” Scenario

Education is increasingly embraced by societies around the world as a common good, with societal leaders acknowledging that human competence is humanity’s greatest renewable resources. E-learning is popularly viewed as a legitimate method of developing human competence and expertise. Political and economic resistance to e-learning diminishes over time and there is an increase in both private and public funding that supports e-learning in schools and universities around the globe. Increased investment in digital infrastructure provide increased access to internet around the planet. There is a greater movement towards open educational resources that enables freely transferred knowledge and scientific advancements, bringing about greater access to information and knowledge equity. Wider access to education via e-learning increases workforce participation and lifelong job training opportunities.

Education informs and is informed by human freedom, fairness, and justice. Through e-learning, learners are engaging with peers and colleagues in civil discourse on societies most wicked problems and pervasive barriers to human wellbeing and global sustainability. Online platforms enable relationships outside of the traditional classroom and serve as virtual commons where learners share information and engage democratically within learning communities unrestricted to towns, cities, states and countries. These virtual common areas provide engagement opportunities for a broad population of peoples, reflecting a mosaic of diverse cultural assumptions, ideas, and perspectives. 

Continuous improvements in online and hybrid education and training programs lead schools, universities, and employers to increasingly value e-learning as a valid method of accessible, dynamic, and cost-efficient education and training. Advances in learning technologies and e-learning programs that are accessible anytime from anywhere support the modern workforce including permanent, casual, agency, and contract employees who work from many locations.

Organizations of all types embrace digital innovation cycles and calibrate improvements in teaching and learning with periodic advances in technological capability. A greater degree of technological convergence coupled with inter-organizational cooperation and collaborations make knowledge and human competence requirements at all levels transparent and help support learner transitions from k-12 to post-secondary and into the workplace. Educational authorization, accreditation, and regulatory practices, designed to assure and advance the quality of e-learning programs, increasingly allow for rapid adaptations to accommodate the rapid disruption cycles of digital innovation in both learning technologies and workplace practices. Technology has progressed so that the data that it generates on learning is easy to consume. The data instructional quality and the relevance of curriculum, while allowing for instructional flexibility and increased learner accessibility.

The learning sciences have blossomed as an established discipline that is heavily influenced by empirical research. The interdisciplinary nature of learning sciences combine data analytics, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and machine learning in a way that assures and advances measurable learning. E-learning systems are equipped to collect learning science data that informs the analysis of peak learning environments. Educators are more effective at incorporating emerging tech into the teaching and learning progress. Organizations create the infrastructure to assure teachers, faculty and trainers are competent in the use of instructional technologies and e-learning pedagogies while remaining sensitive to the needs of diverse learners.

Learners increasingly value e-learning as a way to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities, and ultimately their life circumstances throughout all stages of life. Learning institutions and workplace move beyond formal degrees to valuing a more fluid credentialing system that recognizes different degrees of human competence. With learners untethered to physical locations, more individuals develop capabilities to solve global, local, and organizational problems. Civil societies exploit their highest level of thinking to create, innovate, and solve seemingly intractable challenges.


There remains a number of discordant ideas about the value of e-learning at a time when emerging learning technologies can be adopted in ways that increase access to education and training and unleash the expertise of diverse learners on a global scale. The nature of work and the skills necessary to perform most work roles are constantly changing. According to research by the World Economic Forum, the core skills required to perform most roles will change by 42% on average by 2022. Accelerating the adoption of quality e-learning across the lifecycle can prepare individuals for these impending changes to work roles and expand access to education in ways to lead to better informed individuals and societies. Here we identified vital issues at the societal, organizational, and individual level of the learning ecosystem that could lead to either a precarious or preferred future. We offer these thoughts as a way to help e-learning advocates and practitioners contemplate possible ways to reach the broadest potential population of learners; anticipate cultural, socio-political and financial roadblocks; and facilitate adoption of e-learning as a way to transform education well beyond this disruptive period.

We’d like to hear from you. In what ways might we bring about the world we want by amplifying effective e-learning methods in the classrooms, in organizations, and in the community? Share your responses on Twitter at #Futureofe-learning

About the Authors:

Dr. Christopher Washington

Dr. Christopher Washington serves as the Provost and Executive Vice President of Franklin University, where he works to adapt and respond to the rapidly evolving technological, social, demographic, and competitive landscape affecting higher education institutions today. He currently serves as National Board Chair of Global Ties U.S., and as a member of the United States Speakers Bureau, and on the Forbes Nonprofit Council. Dr. Washington is also a 2016 Learning! Champion.

Dr. Karen-Miner-Romanoff

Dr. Karen Miner-Romanoff teaches at New York University, serves as a nonprofit consultant and program evaluator, and is a 2016 Learning! Champion. Prior, she held the position of Assistant Dean for Academic Excellence at NYU and led the Center for Academic Excellence and Support. She holds a Ph.D. and Master’s in Public Policy and Administration, emphasis in criminology. Prior to joining NYU, Dr. Miner-Romanoff served as the Associate Provost for Academic Quality and Executive Director for the International Institute for Innovative Instruction at Franklin University.

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