The State of E-Learning

As access to technology increases in K-12 classrooms, a shift in the way in which learning is designed and delivered has emerged. This trend towards alternative delivery of learning is happening locally in Alberta where in 2012-2013, 10.3% of the K-12 students took some form of distance education (Barbour, 2013). Internationally, the trend towards  e-learning has made headway in educational circles, both in K-12 and post-secondary contexts. According to a survey conducted by The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), “global online and blended learning initiatives show(s) the widespread growth of this digital strategy. The report concluded that elementary and secondary-level students living in North America, Western Europe, Asia, and Oceania have the most access to blended and online learning choices. While not part of national agendas yet, 24 states in the U.S. are experimenting with blended schools” (cited in Johnson et al, 2014, p. 12). As teachers shift their classroom practice towards technology-enhanced learning in its variety of models and classifications, understanding of the pedagogy, theory and practice of this type of learning is required. Because e-learning is complex and continues to evolve, the need for research within the K- 12 system has materialized. “At the moment, one of the biggest challenges facing the growth of empirical knowledge into K–12 online distance learning is the lack of scholars focused in this area” (Barbour, 2013, p.2).

Issues in how data is collected and reported have hampered researchers in fully understanding the landscape of e-learning. Similar to the findings of iNACOL regarding the lack of national agendas on e-learning, Allen and Seaman report that “over 20 percent of all higher education institutions claim that online education is critical for their long-term strategy, but also report that online education is not ‘significantly represented in my institution’s formal strategic plan” (2014, p. 9). This may point to a larger issue in that when learning organizations and governing bodies lack strategic and formal plans for e-learning pockets of teachers use various forms of e-learning but are not easily tracked for data collection purposes.  In Canada, the data collect by Barbour in the State of the Nation may suffer from similar issues in that there is not a national strategy for data collection on e-learning.  According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “To date, Canada does not have a comprehensive or coherent approach to align e-learning’s vast potential with a clearly articulated and informed understanding of what it could or should accomplish. Instead, e-learning in Canada consists of loosely connected provincial, territorial and federal e-learning networks, educational providers (public and private) and targeted initiatives. The consequences of this approach include duplicated efforts, fragmented goals and objectives, and sporadic and short-term initiatives” (2009, p. 7). The definition of what constitutes e-learning may vary from teacher to teacher, school to school and province to province. Where no strategic plan exists for data collection on e-learning, it is nearly impossible to form a full and complete picture of the impact of e-learning on students. We see this in Alberta where the Ministry of Education has no formal means to collect information on e-learning. With many teachers moving towards blended approaches to learning, the numbers of e-learners that are reported become even less clear. Each teacher or school may define their version of technology enhanced learning as blended learning, flexible learning, online learning, e-learning, distributed learning or any combination thereof. The decision about instructional delivery of e-learning is left up to individual school boards and therefore Alberta Education makes little or no effort to collect this type of data making it difficult for researchers to access.

Another problem seems to be the lack of empirical research and reporting in K-12 has historically been an impediment in programming for student success. “E-learning holds tremendous promise and potential, yet it remains a largely unexplored field. There is a lack of Canadian data related to e-learning—in particular, relevant empirical and longitudinal research on e-learning that would shed light on the effectiveness of current Canadian e-learning initiatives” (as cited in The Canadian Council on Learning, 2009, p. 9). According to Barbour, “This lack of research – and literature in general – has also created a deficit of information available to policy makers to be able to inform the regulation of K –12 distance education” (p. 17). In the US Department of Education’s Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, “an unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education)” (2009, p. ix).

A further limitation of the current research in e-learning is that it is often focused on higher educational context and employs the adult learning theory which approaches learning through collaborative problem solving, builds on personal experience and emphasizes a community of learners. Further research in the K-12 context to determine if and how e-learning can be designed, delivered for younger learners using the connected learning model is greatly needed.  As teachers shift their approaches to teaching and learning in the digital age, much care and attention should be given to research into cognitively appropriate means of applying learning science to the experience of K-12 students.  “Educators making decisions about online learning need rigorous research examining the effectiveness of online learning for different types of students and subject matter as well as studies of the relative effectiveness of different online learning practices” (US Department of Education, p. 54, 2009). The implications for students learning in the digital world, the development of web literacies, assessment practices and the changing role of the teacher from content expert to lead learner require further research.


Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

Barbour, M. (2013).  State of the nation: K-12 Online learning in Canada.  Retrieved from

Bates, T. (2014). Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario. Online learning and distance education resources. Retrieved from

Canadian Council on Learning. (2009). State of E-Learning in Canada. Retrieved from

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

U.S. Department of Education (2009).  Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning.  Retrieved from


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