The Killer Application

E-Learning Terminology, Components, Adverse Factors,


by Geert De Cubber

Geert De Cubber (  is Web Manager with  De Wilde CBT , a Belgian company that specializes in Web-based language training. He is a correspondent for OI, the independent journal of Open Universiteit Nederland (the Open University of the Netherlands).

Education through the internet – in short: e-learning – is becoming a big business. This article is concerned with some of the didactical aspects involved (task-based learning, self-paced vs. collaborative learning) as well as the components of e-learning (technology and delivery, content and services). It also goes into detail when it comes to the threats for the e-learning future (lack of standards, lack of good content, resistance to using new technology in learning and legal issues). Last but not least, the article provides a critical view of the evolution of Web-based learning and the capability of the people’s brains to cope with this (r)evolution.

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"The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail look like a rounding error," [1]  says John Chambers, Chief Executive Officer of Cisco Systems. Because his company provides the whole world with the necessary technical backbone for Internet traffic, Chambers is very familiar with the notion of a "killer application." 

Judging from the number of comprehensive reports on the e-learning business by companies, such as W.R. Hambrecht & Co. (further referred to as Hambrecht 2000), Morgan Keegan & Co. (further referred to as Ruttenbur et al. 2000), SunTrust Equitable Securities (further referred to as Close et al. 2000), Thomas Weisel Partners (further referred to as McCrea et al. 2000) or Banc of America Securities (further referred to as Block & Dobell 1999), over the past two years, Chambers’ words are no longer prophetic, but have proven to contain more than one element of truth. We can learn from these reports that e-learning has become big business by now, and that it is an ever increasing and expanding business. However, many people will keep asking themselves: "What exactly is e-learning and how is this going to be important to me?" In the following I will try to give an answer to these and other questions.

What exactly is e-learning?

E-learning: looking for a definition

The Internet seems to be able to stick an "e" in front of any word. This has lead to new words such as e-business, e-cards or e-learning. If we add this ability to the inherent properties of the Internet, we can describe e-learning as the ability to "provide information to 'anyone, anytime, anywhere'." [Ruttenbur et al. 2000: 10] However, this should somewhat be modified. This "anyone, anytime, anywhere" is not so much of importance. What could make e-learning the next big killer application is the Net’s ability to deliver the right piece of information to the right individual or group at the right moment. A general course in French is of little use to a chief technology officer. A student who needs basic information about programming does not usually want to be faced with a C++ or Java course. On the other hand, if this chief technology officer is a German who has to travel regularly to France for the job, this general French course could become of interest. The same goes for the student who becomes fascinated by programming after having read the first chapter of the basics book.

Another possible definition of e-learning is the following [Block & Dobell 1999: 283]: "E-learning. The learning by-products from the marriage of the Internet and education. The Internet has transformed the way education occurs and creates new ways of learning". Still, I am not fully satisfied with this definition either. True, the Internet has transformed the way education occurs, but is that enough to talk about new ways of learning? And can we really say that e-learning is the learning by-product resulting from the marriage of the Internet and education? At this point I would rather suggest a tentative definition of our own:

E-learning is some form of learning using an electronic carrier. This electronic carrier brings the right piece of information (content) to the right individual or group at the right moment.

By using the term "electronic carrier" a discussion of whether e-learning is strictly Internet-related, or whether it can also be applied to CD-ROMs or other server-based application such as intranets or extranets is avoided. In short, it should be clear that the term e-learning is broader than just online learning or web-based learning.

A widespread term often used as a synonym for e-learning is technology-based learning. However, I believe that this term refers too much to the technicality [2] of this kind of learning. In addition, we assume that e-learning is much broader than just spreading content through technology. It is rather a way of facing the rapid changes in our modern knowledge society. In that sense, I would reformulate the above definition. Taking into account a more social context, I would define e-learning as follows:

E-learning is a way of life. Interesting and up-to-date material is turned into learning material; thus providing a link between the learning material and the real world. E-learning is also a way of providing the right information to the right person at the right time. Learning is an ever ongoing process; gathering knowledge is not just a goal of education, it is a never ending experience. New learning experiences will enlarge an individual's knowledge base and adjust his or her view of the real world.

Components of e-learning and their growing importance in the future

In traditional computer-based training (CBT), one of the ancestors of e-learning, three components are important: technology and delivery; content; and services. Let us have a closer look at each of these components and see how they can be connected with our definition of e-learning.[3]

Some forms of e-learning

One could appropriately ask if in e-learning we can really talk about "new ways of learning" [8], because basically there are two forms of learning: self study and collaborative learning. As for e-learning, it is pretty much the same.

Depending on the didactical approach taken, we can distinguish between the following basic forms of e-learning: self-paced e-learning (SPEL), asynchronous collaborative e-learning (ACEL) and synchronous collaborative e-learning (SCEL) [9].

It should be clear that in practice we are not always dealing with pure SPEL, pure ACEL or pure SCEL. Mixed forms are very well possible. The teacher can mail his students a package they need for self study. If the teacher wants his students to write an assessment on what they have learned, he leaves the pure SPEL. If he asks them to post the assessment to some website so that all fellow students can read it, they enter ACEL. If the teacher asks a group of students to discuss one or more assessments online at a particular date and time, they are in a SCEL environment. It is clear from this example that there will possibly be more mixed forms of e-learning than the pure ones. Moreover, it is also an option that e-learning is combined with c-learning ("traditional" classroom learning). In regular education this will, perhaps, even be the case most of the time, as in their pursuit of a "good" education teachers will take advantage of the best of both worlds. In such a context e-learning could be used for extra homework or for gathering information or for mail exchange programs with other schools abroad. In our opinion, c-learning will remain necessary to develop certain interpersonal skills (e.g. body language).

Apart from the above classification, Task-Based Learning (TBL) is another widely used term in the context of e-learning. By providing his students with tasks the instructor wants to create a "natural context" [Willis 1996: 1] In a language learning environment, e.g., "[s]tudents prepare for a task, report back after the task and then study the language that arises naturally out of the task cycle and its accompanying materials." [Willis 1996: 1] It is important to observe that TBL and e-learning are not the same, though some people would use one term for the other and vice versa [11]. TBL theory is not new, but it has gained new recognition with the first rise of e-learning. E-TBL is especially popular in language learning environments. Language TBL views e-learning as an opportunity par excellence because the four conditions for language learning (exposure, use of language, motivation and instruction) are present more naturally in an e-learning environment than in a classroom environment. After all, the Internet is full of documents in English (exposure); you will have to use English if you want more information on these documents (use of language); working with the World Wide Web is "cool" (motivation); and last, but not least, the teacher will become more of a coach than a real, ex-cathedra know-it-all (instruction). [12]

The future of e-learning: some adverse factors

Although a brilliant future is predicted for the e-learning business, there are still a few adverse factors. [Ruttenbur et al. 2000: 26ff] So, the following considerations must be taken into account:


"[W]eb-based integrated learning systems will revolutionize eLearning [sic] by enabling personalized, interactive, just-in-time, current, and user-centric learning tools." [Ruttenbur et al. 2000: 15] This quote gives perhaps the best definition of how e-learning is able to change traditional educational perceptions. People learn something because they want to learn it; they need it now; they can use up-to-date material; and they can do it the way they like. They do not learn because their teachers tell them what they should find interesting. This learner-centric approach will revolutionize traditional education, whether schools like this or not. The schools will not remain the sole centers of wisdom, but will be more like other e-learning providers, i.e. a one-stop-shop: people stop by, take out what they want or need and move on.

This attitude is not only true when it comes to schools, but it will also affect the way adults will cope with education. Life-long learning (LLL) is no longer just a saying, as effective LLL can be reached by good use of the new technologies. These new technologies have an enormous impact on the way we deal with information. Information or knowledge management will become more and more key elements in successful companies. The ones who are able to retrieve the right piece of information at the right moment will be the right ones and the big ones.

But there is something else at stake as well: the capability of the human brain to process all this information and knowledge. Ray Kurzweil [17] states that by 2030 people will be able to surf the Net through their brains. Apart from  whether this will be technically possible or not within 30 years from now, I  think Kurzweil missed a psychological link here. The big question is: who will be able to process that information, to stock that knowledge, to "ever-learn" new things without going crazy? Once again, it will be – from a psychological and emotional point of view – a new survival of the fittest: the ones who adapt themselves best to the new situation will survive [18]. If not, education could really become a "killer" application.

End Notes

[1] John Chambers at the COMDEX ’99 conference.

[2] Cf. Hambrecht 2000: 8ff.

[3] Cf. also Close et al. 2000: 4ff. Whereas Close et al. distinguishes between four components, we would rather prefer to treat "technology and delivery" as one component because the delivery of the content happens through technology.

[4] Cf. also the question of how much time people will spend online: "The quickness associated with broadband will lead to increased time online. A study conducted by MediaOne noted that, in Boston households with cable Internet connection averaged 22.5 hours of usage per week versus just 4.7 hours for those households with dial-up connections. The study stated that cable users connected up to ten times more than their dial-up counterparts. With broadband transmission expected to grow from roughly one million households today to nearly 26 million by 2003, providers of e-learning products and services should benefit as users conduct more daily activities online. Simply stated, broadband technology allows for the robust interactivity that will enrich the e-learning experience." (Close et al. 2000: 7).

[5] Cf. "Content is king" (Hambrecht 2000: 24ff.), "CONTENT IS CRITICAL" (Close et al. 2000: 4), "Content will eventually be crowned king" (Ruttenbur et al. 2000: 29).

[6] "Academic institutions, the major producers of branded educational content, recognize the need to offer and distribute their degree programs online, but generally do not have the technical or financial capacity. E-learning companies, on the other hand, see the opportunity of building a brand more quickly and less expensively using the 'Intel inside' concept. As more competitors enter the market, we believe that accreditation of the new online universities and exclusivity of partnerships will be essential differentiators among e-learning competitors." (Hambrecht 2000: 24).

[7] For a detailed description, cf. Ruttenbur et al. 2000: 63.

[8] Cf. definition of Block & Dobell 1999: 283 of e-learning: "The Internet has transformed the way education occurs and creates new ways of learning." We would like to formulate that somewhat more reticent: We think the Internet will transform the way education occurs and will create new ways of learning. At this moment, we see a lot of starting experimenting initiatives. But it will take some time before the transformation will be established and commonly accepted or before successful new ways of learning will come up.

[9] Cf. Block & Dobell 1999: 9ff.

[10] Therefore it is utmost important to give enough specific feedback in SPEL. When a student makes a mistake, he does not want to see "it’s wrong" as feedback, but "it’s wrong because (xyz)." Cf. also HEIFT et al. 2000.

[11] We observed this misconception more than once during our daily work in the field. Many people think e.g. that courseware always creates TBL. This is not true, though; with the courseware you can create TBL if you like, but it does not guarantee it. Whether TBL is applied or not, depends on the teachers working with the courseware.

[12] Cf. WILLIS 1996: 10ff.

[13] Technology and delivery, content, and services are considered the main pillars of e-learning. Cf. also supra.

[14] An example of that is the a·c·e community. This community brings together language teachers whose schools have an a·c·e licence. They work out new types of language exercises and try to divide the work load by sharing exercises they made to the community. The a·c·e community can be found at:

[15] IMS stands for International Multimedia Standard. IMS Global Learning Consortium groups a.o. Apple, Blackboard, California State University, Cisco,, IBM Mindspan Solutions, Microsoft, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, University of Michigan and WebCT. For more information, see

[16] XML or eXtended Mark-up Language is considered the successor of HTML, the language with which Internet pages are made readable and explorable. For more information about XML in education, see Cap 2000.

[17] Cf. KURZWEIL 1999.

[18] With respect to that, a good development of emotional intelligence will be critical. Cf. GOLEMAN 1996. Goleman states that schools will play a tremendously important role when it comes to emotional education. Good emotional education can lead to a better coping with information (cf. e.g. Goleman 1996: 360ff.).


Howard BLOCK, Brandon DOBELL, The e-Bang Theory. Education Industry Overview, Banc of America Securities (Montgomery Division), Washington, D.C., September 1999. [referred to as Block & Dobell 1999]

Clemens H. CAP, XML goes to School: Markup for Computer Assisted Learning and Teaching, in: European Journal for Open and Distance Learning, 20 November 2000 (

Richard C. CLOSE, Rob HUMPHREYS, Brian W. RUTTEBUR, e-Learning & Knowledge Technology. Technology & The Internet Are Changing the Way We Learn, SunTrust Equitable Securities, Nashville/Atlanta/Boston/New York, March 2000. [referred to as Close et al. 2000]

Alessandra CORDA, Internet in het talenonderwijs, Uitgeverij Coutinho, Bussum, 1999.

Daniel GOLEMAN, Emotionele intelligentie. Emoties als sleutel tot succes, Olympus, 1996.

W.R. HAMBRECHT, Corporate e-Learning: Exploring a New Frontier, W.R. Hambrecht & Co., March 2000. [referred to as Hambrecht 2000]

Trude HEIFT, Matthias SCHULZE, Anne VANDEVENTER, HLT Workshop. Lectures during InSTIL 2000, Dundee, 30 August 2000.

Ray KURZWEIL, The Age of Spiritual Machines. When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Viking, 1999.

Fred McCREA, R. Keith GAY, Rusty BACON, Riding the Big Waves. A White Paper on the B2B e-Learning Industry, Thomas Weisel Partners LLC, San Francisco/Boston/New York/London, 2000. [referred to as McCrea et al. 2000]

Brian W. RUTTENBUR, Ginger SPICKLER, Sebastian LURIE, E-Learning. The Engine of the Knowledge Economy, Morgan Keegan & Co., New York, 6 July 2000. [referred to as Ruttenbur et al. 2000]

Peter J. STOKES, How E-Learning Will Transform Education, Education Week online,, 13 September 2000.

Jane WILLIS, A Framework for Task-Based Learning, Addison Wesley Longman Limited, Harlow, 1996.