It’s a matter of words

28 Mar

What’s in a word? Well, quite a lot it seems. Recently, in both my personal contemplation and my professional discussions, I have been grappling with what to call this thing that we do. We are e-learning practitioners and we have an e-learning team. That is how we refer to ourselves and how our organization refers to us. That’s (mostly) fine for our internal reference, but it becomes problematic in a larger context.

Let’s try on some other words to see how they all fit:

"E-learning!?  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

“E-learning!? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

E-learning: Setting aside the lack of standardized spelling (eLearning, Elearning, elearning, e-learning, E-Learning, etc.), what does e-learning mean? Per my previous posts, in a world where we are compelled to be life-long learners or risk “falling behind,” and in which we spend considerable hours in front of screens of all sizes, what is the “e”? Yes, we learn in many ways, but for many e-learning is an opaque, esoteric term. For others, it immediately conjures the dreaded “module” — pages of texts to click through and perhaps take a quiz at the end. Not exactly what I’d like to be associated with.

I know E-learning has stood the test of time: The eLearning Guild (in which I am an active participant), ASTD e-learning certificate, the great E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, and so on. But then again, times they are a-changing (and always will be). When someone comes down my hall to tell me that they need one of those e-learning things, somehow I feel that the term has failed to have our intended meaning.

Distance Learning: “Back in my day, we took a distance correspondence course to become a radio repairman. Then we were set for life!” OK, maybe that is a bit unfair to that term and those who use it. But, I also don’t think it comes close to describing what we do. Certainly a person in an organization can be learning while sitting next to another person who is learning and across from the instructional designer who created it. Distance is neither a defining condition nor a very apt explanation, any more than reading is a form of “distance communication.”

Virtual Learning: I admit this one really boils my butter. When I’m watching a show about the platypus, I’m learning. When I’m taking a course on the latest computer system, I’m learning. And, when I’m making connections between my colleague’s Twitter feed and the latest industry trends, I’m absolutely learning. None of it is virtual – it is all real! As real as 8th grade math class was (which was virtually useless, I concede). Learning is learning, no matter the media. So, until I put on the high-tech goggles and start learning to slay dragons, let’s put this one away.

Digital Learning: Hmmm.. this has potential. Yes, what I do is design learning programs that are (mostly, anyway) delivered through digital media: some combination of sites, courses, videos, webinars, online affinity groups and communities of practice, curated websites and content streams, etc. Would the larger world read digital learning to mean learning about digital technology? That is a potential problem, but it may not be insurmountable.

Holistic Learning: OK, I’ll put on the Enya and you get the crystals. Shame, because I think some word that implies a comprehensive program of adult learning, one that encompasses courses, social learning, performance support,


Enya wants in on our holistic learning.

professional development paths, etc., is a worthy endeavor. But I don’t think I could pull off calling what I do “holistic learning” – and I know my colleagues couldn’t. (Joking, dear friends! Sort of.)

Performance Support Programs: I do like the idea of leading with the purpose (performance support) rather than the delivery vehicle (courses, job aides, websites, webinars, etc.). After all, that is the purpose we undertake any adult learning program, isn’t it? For learners to apply what they know and what the learn in order to perform better. A bit more closely aligned with HR-speak than I might care for, but it’s not bad.

I have a close colleague here, though, who strongly objects to the term “perform” as it applies to people and their jobs. Actors perform. Trained animals perform. But free-thinking people have self-determination and agency beyond mere performance. While I don’t have that reaction, there seems to be enough folks out there who do to consider carefully how and where we use this term.

Online Learning: Online, that is connected to, well, something: The Internet, the web, the LMS, the satellite, the cell phone tower, the intranet. Even if we are still working in CD- or DVD-ROM-based training (it’s 1998 calling: It wants it’s CD back!), the notion that we are using a connected tool (the PC) on which to learn seems pretty solid. And, it sets personal or classroom learning settings as something apart from online learning. Do we have a winner?

Can we swap “online learning” for “e-learning” as the more succinct, less negatively connotative term? Perhaps I’ll take it up at the next eLearning Guild event.

I would love for your thoughts on this. Feel free to leave a comment.

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