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Reimagine E-learning: a proposal for a 21st learning framework


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In recent years, there has been a growing debate and rise in publications about learning in its multiple forms. This variety has contributed to the richness of existing research but it has also increased, rather than reduced, the need for more clarity to advance further. Through a content analysis performed on the last twenty years of research, we aim at providing clarity about the complex definitions landscape of the most diffused 16 learning terms in the literature. We discuss their use over the years and we depict some trends. We conclude by providing a comprehensive learning framework that clarifies interactions and interdependencies among the terms. The framework classifies the terms into models, modes and methods. Through three exemplary case studies, we also show how instructional designers and instructors can apply this framework.
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Reimagine E-learning: a proposal for a 21st learning
L. Caporarello1,*, A. Giovanazzi2 and B. Manzoni1
1SDA Bocconi School of Management, and Department of Management and Technology, Bocconi University, Milano, Italy
2Bocconi University, Milano, Italy
In recent years, there has been a growing debate and rise in publications about learning in its multiple forms. This variety
has contributed to the richness of existing research but it has also increased, rather than reduced, the need for more clarity
to advance further. Through a content analysis performed on the last twenty years of research, we aim at providing clarity
about the complex definitions landscape of the most diffused 16 learning terms in the literature. We discuss their use over
the years and we depict some trends. We conclude by providing a comprehensive learning framework that clarifies
interactions and interdependencies among the terms. The framework classifies the terms into models, modes and methods.
Through three exemplary case studies, we also show how instructional designers and instructors can apply this framework.
Keywords: E-learning, learning, future of learning, learning trends, tech-based learning, non tech-based learning, content analysis, case
Received on 30 November 2017, accepted on 13 December 2017, published on 19 December 2017
Copyright © 2017 L. Caporarello et al., licensed to EAI. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unlimited use,
distribution and reproduction in any medium so long as the original work is properly cited.
doi: 10.4108/eai.19-12-2017.153489
*Corresponding author.; authors are listed in alphabetical order
1. Introduction
In recent years, we witnessed a sharp rise in publications,
as well as conference sessions, research reports and
working papers related to the concept of learning [1]. The
growing number of publications may imply that a greater
understanding of the learning phenomenon is in act, but it
is not always the case. There is a variety of
conceptualizations and interpretations of learning, which
occurs in multiple forms. On the one hand this variety has
contributed to the richness of existing research, on the
other hand it has increased, rather than reduced, the need
for more clarity to advance further [2].
This increase is particularly boosted by a technological
shift, which is occurring in the learning landscape [3, 4].
Indeed, technology has determined the rise of a number of
learning methodologies and processes. Among these, the
most explored one is “E-learning” [5], whose meaning is
quickly evolving over time [6].
Apart from a few exceptions, which however adopted a
more narrow scope on blended learning [7] and online
learning [5], there is a lack of contributions providing a
comprehensive overview of the phenomenon.
In this article, we take on the challenge of giving order to
the multiplicity of terms and definitions around some
concepts related to learning over the last twenty years,
with the purpose to provide clarity among the different
definitions and to propose a fruitful agenda for future
The remainder of this article is organized as follows. The
second section describes the method we used to select the
most cited article related to the concept of learning. In the
third section we provide clarity about the complex
definitions landscape of the most cited learning terms in
the literature. In the forth section we discuss the use of
these terms over the years and we depict some trends. In
the fifth section we propose a framework for a learning
model, which organizes the terms into models, modes and
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L. Caporarello, A. Giovanazzi and B. Manzoni
methodologies and which clarifies interactions and
interdependencies among them. In the sixth section we
describe how instructional designers and instructors can
apply this framework to design and deliver a course. To
do so we use three case studies at the executive education
level. Finally we conclude with some implications for
future research as well as for practitioners.
2.Content analysis: overview of the
To ensure theoretical transparency, reliability, and
validity, we followed a structured content analysis process
[8] about learning. We developed our sample by searching
for “learning” on Google Scholar over a time frame of the
last twenty years, and then listing what terms were used in
combination with it. We sampled articles, books, book
chapters and conference proceedings. We did not take into
considerations theses and unpublished materials.
Although some authors argue that highly cited papers are
not always indicative of impactful research [9], it is
reasonable to consider that high citation rates do reflect a
certain level of quality [10], thus we filtered for those
cited at least 20 times. This resulted in 3,616 publications
from 1997 to 2016, including 2,874 articles, 229 books,
56 book chapters and 457 conference proceedings, and in
a list of 16 different terms: active learning, asynchronous
learning, blended learning, cooperative learning, distance
learning, e-learning, face-to-face learning, game-based
learning, informal learning, mobile learning, non-formal
learning, online learning, personalized learning, problem-
based learning, project-based learning and synchronous
3. Shedding light on multiple ways of
Our analysis reveals a complex variety of conceptual
definitions around learning. As table 1 shows, the 16
selected learning terms have different meanings but they
also present an unfocused richness in the sense that
definitions are sometimes confused [7, 11, 12], in overlap
[13, 14] or combinable [15, 16].
-- Insert here table 1 --
First, confusion exists about many terms that remain
poorly defined or “ill-defined” [28]. For example, face-to-
face learning is hardly defined in the literature: despite
being the most traditional and common way of learning,
its definition is somehow given for granted across the
articles dealing with it [49]. Several authors point out that
there is “either no clear definition or a very vague
reference to […] terms such as online course/learning,
web-based learning, web-based training, learning objects
or distance learning believing that the term can be used
synonymously” [2]. For example problem-based learning
has been described both as a method [86] and as an
educational strategy [11]. This lack of clarity is
particularly evident for all the tech-based learning terms:
confusion persists about blended learning [28], online
learning [7], mobile learning [65] and e-learning [12].
For example, blended learning is defined as “the
thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning
experiences with online learning experiences” [27] as well
as “a description of particular forms of teaching with
technology” [28]. Even project-based learning is
described as “the theory and practice of utilizing real-
world work assignments on time-limited projects to
achieve mandated performance objectives and to facilitate
individual and collective learning” [87] as well as “a
student-driven, teacher-facilitated approach to learning.
Learners pursue knowledge by asking questions that have
piqued their natural curiosity. The genesis of a project is
an inquiry” [88]. Mobile learning is also interpreted as
either the learner or the device being mobile [65]. Finally,
with regard to e-learning “although [it] has become a hot
topic in training and education organizations around the
globe, there is considerable variance in opinion about just
what it is” [1].
Secondly, overlap in terms of meaning is evident across
different concepts. For example cooperative learning and
game-based learning are sometimes described similarly,
in the sense that authors stress the fact of working
together to accomplish goals or to develop an end product
within a play framework [13, 14, 37, 54]. Mobile learning
is seen as a more recent version of distance learning [2].
Online learning is also seen as a form of distance
education where technology mediates the process [7]. E-
learning often overlaps with most of the other learning
terms here studied [1, 30, 78].
Finally, combinations occur with many terms. For
example, blended learning is often combined with
synchronous learning [15], mobile learning with
synchronous learning [16], informal learning [67] or
game-based one [57]; distance learning with synchronous
learning [16], cooperative learning with distance learning
[34, 84]. Problem-based learning is frequently addressed
as a specific type of active learning [18], as well as
project-based learning [87]. With regard to e-learning
specifically, the term is often combined with personalized
learning [78], mobile learning [16], synchronous learning
[16], online learning [30], distance learning [30], and
asynchronous learning [1].
4. The use of learning terms over time
In this section we discuss how the 16 learning terms have
been used and researched from 1997 onwards. In
particular we discuss how learning trends developed over
fifteen years, what are the most recent trends and how
tech-based learning terms progressively became more
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Reimagine E-learning: a proposal for a 21st learning framework
Blended learning, online learning but especially e-
learning are the mainstream learning terms of the past
fifteen years (see Figure 1††).
E-learning is the top trend learning term, but instead of
growing up, it is decreasing in relative use, suggesting
that it will not be probably on the edge in the future, at
least not as in the past. Online learning increased a lot,
reaching stability in the period 2009-2012. Finally,
distance learning, that was the top mainstream learning
term of the last years of the nineties, and according to
many expected to grow [43], has been clearly replaced by
the rapid growth of informal learning, game-based
learning, mobile learning and, above all, blended learning.
Figure 1 - The use of learning terms over the years
The past four years (2013-2016) show similarities as well
as differences with the previous ones (Figure 2).
Figure 2 - The most recent trends (2013-2016)
E-learning remains the top first topic with 22.22% of
citations. Mobile learning (16.26%) and blended learning
(15,45%) are growing fast in terms of interest, as well as
online learning (12.74%). Game based, problem based
and informal learning are also debated terms in the
literature and this possibly suggest the importance of
†† Citations after 2012 are not included because the
number drops not a matter of less interest in the topic but
as a matter of shorter time available for citations.
providing learning experiences which help participants
and students “solve” real problems.
If we compare the “1997-2012 top terms list” with the
“2013-2016 top terms list” (Table 2), we can see that
blended learning, project-based and active learning have
moved up, yet the really big move is the one of mobile
learning (+5 places in the ranking) and game-based
learning (+3 places). Distance learning has instead
significantly moved down losing 6 places. In general we
can see that the landscape is changing in favour to a more
gamified and informal approach.
-- insert here table 2 --
Another interesting trend in the literature is related to the
fact that the top cited learning concepts are tech-based,
showing how technology is radically changing the face of
organizations [24, 50, 64].
Tech-based learning includes those terms where the use of
technology is embedded and inevitable. Given this
definition blended learning, e-learning, mobile learning,
Online learning are tech-based concepts. The other 12
concepts are classified as non tech-based ones even if
some of them can also rely on technology but it is not a
“must have”.
Figure 3 shows that the citations of non tech-based
learning have not increased from 1997 to 2008 and they
have even decreased from 2009 onwards. Moreover, until
the beginning of the new millennium, articles discussing
non tech-based learning terms were up to six time more
than the tech-based ones, while from 2005 onwards tech-
based articles doubled the non tech-based ones, with an
outstanding growth of 641% in only 10 years.
Moreover, from our analysis we can observe a general
shift from being instructor-centred to being student-
centred [7] but also from being learning-driven to
technology-driven [67, 82]. This last shift needs to be
however carefully managed to maintain the learner at the
centre and to avoid that technology becomes the fulcrum
of the learning experience.
Figure 3 - Trends in using non tech-based and tech-
based learning terms in the academic literature
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L. Caporarello, A. Giovanazzi and B. Manzoni
5. A proposed comprehensive learning
In this section we intend to provide an answer to the
following two questions: “Why are confusion and overlap
about learning terms still in place?”; “Why can we
combine some learning terms and not others?”. Referring
to the first question, we argue that terms mean different
things and that they are not all at the same level, even if
they all include learning in their definition. Referring to
the second question, we argue that we can combine terms
across different levels and not within levels.
Thus, we intend to propose a learning framework (Figure
4) that organizes the different learning concepts into
different levels.
Figure 4 - A comprehensive learning framework
The first level is the one of the learning model which is
the set of general principles based on which an entire
course is built upon. According to our interpretation of the
literature, choosing the learning model implies an
exclusive choice between an online, blended and
traditional learning.
The second level is the one of the modes which is
composed by at least six couples of terms: synchronous
vs. asynchronous, individual vs. team based, active vs.
passive, personalized vs. standardized, face-to-face vs.
distance, formal vs. informal learning. These couples of
modes are dichotomies in the sense that within each
couple of terms either we choose one mode or another.
Within a course, a session cannot be synchronous and
asynchronous or active and passive at the same time.
The difference between models and modes is that while in
a course we can only have one learning model, we can
have multiple modes, provided that we respect the
dichotomies. For example, in a blended learning course
(which cannot be online or traditional if blended) we can
have sessions in a face to face learning mode and others in
a distance learning mode; however, each session can also
be multi-mode that means for example based at the same
time on a face-to-face, active and individual learning
The final level is the one of methods, where we can have
at least six concepts. As for the modes, also for the
methods we can have multiple learning methods within
the same session and course. For example, a session can
combine a game-based and a lecture based learning
Interactions and combinations can occur between terms
across different levels (model-modes-methods) and,
except for the model level, also within the levels. For
example, a course can be based on a traditional or online
or blended learning model. Given the chosen model, in
terms of modes the sessions can be synchronous or
asynchronous, they can require an individual learning or a
team-based learning and they can involve participants in a
more active or passive learning process. Different
sessions can rely on different modes. Regarding the
methods, they can also be combined within the same
session, which can for example be case based and lecture
based at the same time.
One learning concept e-learning eludes the
categorization presented in this framework. In fact E-
learning can result from different mixes of models, modes
and methods. Blended learning, as well as online learning,
is part of e-learning. Likewise, all other types of learning
(e.g. active learning, formal learning, cooperative
learning) can occur via e-learning. This makes the concept
of e-learning, which is also the most diffused one in the
literature, much more pervasive in the framework than
any other term. This possibly suggests that, given the
recent significant technological shift, e-learning and
Learning are converging into the same concept.
6. The framework in practice: three case
studies from executive education
In this section, we present three case studies‡‡ that
exemplify how the proposed framework can be applied to
the design of executive education initiatives.
The first case study is an example of a program entirely
taught online in terms of learning model. The program is a
management academy developed for a company operating
in the logistic industry targeted to around 1300
employees. The entire program lasts approximately 10
‡‡ Two of the three authors were involved in the design of
the three programs at SDA Bocconi School of
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The program starts with a “check-up” which is a self-
assessment allowing participants to test their knowledge
about management. This check-up is an example of
asynchronous, individual, personalized and distance
learning in term of modes: each participant solves an
online case study at any time within a timespan. At the
end, he/she gets an individual personalized report
summarising his/her own scores and suggesting areas of
improvement. In terms of methods, this check-up relies
upon the use of a case-based and game based learning.
The second step of the Academy offers 5 modules on 5
specific topics. Each module includes an average of 5
online video classes with individual readings, self-
assessments and discussion boards. In terms of modes,
these are examples of asynchronous and individual
learning where self-assessments allow for participants
being active in their learning. In terms of methods, each
video includes lectures, case discussions and short
The second case study is an example of a program based
on a blended learning model. The program is developed
for a financial services company. It is an 18 month-long
master in finance and it is aimed at 40 employees.
The program is structured in 12 modules, where most of
them are designed according to the blended learning
model, which includes both online and face-to-face
Each learning module includes some online activities and
face-to-face classes. The online activities include 2 hours
for live office hours (synchronous sessions) and 8
asynchronous sessions through pre-recorded online
classes with an average length of 15’ each. The
synchronous sessions are an example of team-based
learning because the learning process leverages on the
interactions between the participants and facilitated by the
instructor. The asynchronous sessions are instead an
example of individual learning because each participant
can attend them when they prefer within a set timespan.
Individual learning is also often fostered with individual
graded assignments. With regards to the methods, each
synchronous session includes a small lecture, a case-based
discussion and a cooperative learning phase on group
discussions and team-based graded assignments.
Similarly, asynchronous sessions are also a mix of
lectures, case discussions, web-based simulations, project
work assignments.
The face-to-face class consists of 1 day of synchronous
training with an instructor. In terms of mode, each day
guarantees an active learning thanks to the combination of
different learning methods (lectures, case studies, games
including role plays and simulations action plan and
project works).
The third case study is an example of a training program
delivered according to a traditional learning model, which
is entirely face-to-face with no online components. The
program is targeted to 50 creative professionals and it
aims at developing their leadership skills through a 4-days
course. These 4 days are distributed over two months in
two modules of two days each. In terms of modes, each
module is characterised for synchronous, face-to-face,
formal, active and team-based learning: participants get
engaged in activities, which foster feedbacks from the
peers and the instructor. Instructors rely on different
methods including lectures, case studies and role-plays
about effective one to one and one to many
communications, and project-based learning opportunities
(art lab, self-portrait experiential activities).
Despite the diversity of learning models, the three case
studies have in common the variety of learning modes and
methods, which are used to design the course. In the
participants’ as well as instructors’ experience, combining
different modes and methods maximizes the effectiveness
of the learning journey.
This paper aims at providing both a research and a
managerial contribution in the field of learning.
From a research point of view, we shed light on the
multiplicity of the most diffused learning-related
concepts, clarifying their meanings, showing their use
over the past 20 years, highlighting major trends and
presenting how the learning landscape is changing. We
show that a technological shift occurred in academic
research on learning, making scholars being increasingly
interested in tech-based terms such as blended learning,
online learning, mobile learning and of course e-learning.
From a managerial point of view, we offer instructional
designers and lecturers a comprehensive and detailed
overview of all the available learning models, modes and
methods they can use to design a course. We make these
different possibilities clear in terms of definitions of the
single learning terms and possible combinations between
them. Through three real case studies we also exemplify
how the different elements of the proposed framework
can be used and combined to maximize the effectiveness
of participants’ learning experience.
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EAI Endorsed Transactions on
11 2017 - 12 2017 | Volume 4 | Issue 16 | e2
Reimagine E-learning: a proposal for a 21st learning framework
Today learning within organizations is the most important driver of people attraction, retention and engagement. While “why” we should learn is out of questions and “how” (in terms of options) we could do it is relatively well known, we know little about how individuals learn and especially how they would like to learn in the future. In this paper, we compare how much employees currently use different learning models (traditional or face to face, online and blended) and learning methods and how much they would like to use them in the future. We surveyed online 245 Italian employees and we discovered that respondents predominantly use face to face learning while aiming for more online learning and relatively more blended learning in the future. With regard to learning methods, our data highlight that there is the expectation to use less instructor-led lectures in favor of other more engaging learning methods. These results offer interesting insights for the HR function and the Business Schools that have to design up to date learning programs.
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The focus of research in mobile learning has shifted from “anytime anywhere” delivery of educational content on mobile devices towards understanding the mobility of learning, as learners move among locations, times, objects and social interactions. Within a classroom, mobile technologies can support new forms of collaboration, with students shifting from working individually on a problem to creating a group solution, then sharing that with the class. More broadly, learners equipped with personal devices such as smartphones and tablets can start to connect learning experiences at home or outdoors with their formal education. A central concern of research in mobile learning is to examine the relations between learning and context. Beyond the classroom (e.g., on a field trip or a visit to a museum) constraints of space, curriculum and timetable are reduced, so learners may have to establish “micro-sites” for learning out of available locations and resources, supported by mobile devices. The mobile technology becomes a facilitator of conversations and interactions within and across locations. A further progression is for educational technology to become embedded in locations, with “smart” objects forming a ubiquitous technology-enabled learning environment: for example, buildings that teach about energy usage, or household objects that describe themselves in a foreign language. A vision for the future is to support people in a lifetime of learning as they explore the natural and created world.
Full-text available
The evolution of technology has influenced and, in some cases pushed, many change projects in any type of industry. Educational institutions have also been influenced by this technological evolution. This has generated some important shifts in the educational paradigm that have consequently lead to some changes in the learning processes. Although e-learning represents one of the most important consequences of such educational paradigm evolutions, its relative benefits have still not been fully demonstrated. Thus, a new educational paradigm shift has emerged: blended learning. This phenomenon is not new in the literature, but recently it is increasingly gaining support as the model of the future in higher education, especially in international institutions in constant quest for excellence and innovation in the learning experiences they propose to their learners. How are educational institutions facing the use of technology for educational purposes? How do they have to change in order to be ready for successfully adopting this kind of learning model? In this paper we intend to answer these questions, and to provide some recommendations to educational institutions in order to help them understand how to lead the change processes necessary for blended learning to become a full-fledged reality at their schools.
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The second edition of E-Learning in the 21st Century provides a coherent, comprehensive, and empirically-based framework for understanding e-learning in higher education. Garrison draws on his decades of experience and extensive research in the field to explore the technological, pedagogical, and organizational implications of e-learning. Most importantly, he provides practical models that educators can use to realize the full potential of e-learning. This book is unique in that it focuses less on the long list of ever-evolving technologies and more on the search for an understanding of these technologies from an educational perspective.
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In this series, we explore current technology-related themes and topics. The series aims to discuss and demystify what may be new areas for some readers and to consider their relevance to English language teachers. In future articles, we will be covering topics such as learning technologies in low-resource environments, personal learning networks, and e-learning.
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In this paper, we investigate the impact of flow (operationalized as heightened challenge and skill), engagement, and immersion on learning in game-based learning environments. The data was gathered through a survey from players (N = 173) of two different learning games (Quantum Spectre: N = 134 and Spumone: N = 40). The results show that engagement in the game has a clear positive effect on learning but immersion in the game does not have a significant effect on learning. Challenge of the game affected learning both directly and via the increased engagement. Skill did not affect learning directly but only via the increased engagement. Perceived challenge was an especially strong predictor of learning outcomes. For the design of educational games, the results imply that the challenge of the game should be able to keep up with the learners growing abilities and learning in order to endorse continued learning in game-based learning environments.
Problem based and project based learning (PBL) models are implemented all over the world in various versions at curriculum or course level. Due to this development, the conceptual understanding of PBL has become more diverse and sometimes confusing. This chapter summarizes the conceptual work done by the UNESCO Chair in PBL in engineering education in order to define PBL as a set of core learning principles that can be applied in practice. The PBL learning principles are formulated within three aspects: learning, social, and content of study. Furthermore, the chapter contains a PBL curriculum model, which can be used for analysis and development of the curriculum or single courses. Seven elements are identified as important for the planning and implementation of PBL learning principles, and for each of the elements there are several choices to be made. Finally, the chapter presents concrete advice for utilization of PBL learning principles in the curriculum or in the single course.
This chapter reviews a rapidly growing body of empirical evidence on the effectiveness of using video and computer games to provide instruction. Evidence of their effectiveness is drawn from existing results and data. The topics covered here are transfer from computer games to external tasks, enhancing cognitive processes, guidance and animated agents, playing time and integration with curricular objectives, effects on game players, attitudes toward games, cost-effectiveness, and, finally, the use of games for evaluation. Areas where the evidence base is particularly weak are identified in the discussion section. Findings and recommendations for the design of games used in instruction are summarized in a table. The chapter concludes with a call for development of tools and technology for integrating the motivating aspects of games with good instructional design. People do learn from games. Missing are generally effective design processes that ensure that learners will acquire the specific knowledge and skills the games are intended to impart.