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The Virtual University and E-Learning
Apr 1, 2002

The perennial questions How do people learn? and What do they need to know? have challenged educators since the time of Socrates (d. 339 BCE) to our own. Given the now near-global availability of the Internet, instructors, learners, and educational institutions are analyzing all of the various ways that they can benefit from it.

The increasing use of e-learning methods and virtual university environments have focused researchers attention on the Socratic method: Playing students with questions and then demanding that they discover, organize, and structure their own responses to the problems posed in an attempt to overcome the constraints of traditional methods.(1) Socrates also believed that students could be successful only if they accepted responsibility and took the initiative.

The Web's 1992 advent represents a watershed in the development of online education. Its user-friendly nature made the Internet accessible to the general public, and its powerful graphic capabilities expanded the range of disciplines that could be offered online by enabling virtual labs, studios, animations, and so on.(2) Currently, e-learning allows people to learn anywhere and usually at any time, as long as the computer being used is configured properly. With its available text, video, audio, animation, and virtual environments, its self-paced, hands-on nature has the potential to offer a more enriching level of training than students might experience in a crowded classroom.

E-learning methods

Contemporary e-learning methods contain elements of the Socratic model. Students select, organize, and structure the information in order to accomplish selected tasks. They see the functional value of what they are learning while they are learning, and benefit from working directly with the content.

The virtual university (VU) concept enables the application of e-learning methods in a wide range of fields. VU is a customized Web-based learning environment that delivers online education and seeks to support active, collaborative learning and cross-disciplinary knowledge-building.(3) Knowledge-building is the intentional process of solving problems progressively and developing and acquiring expertise.(4)

In a traditional instruction system, only the instructor is the active learner, for teaching someone else is a powerful way to learn. By selecting, organizing, and structuring the information for a group of students, instructors benefit by working with and mastering the content for themselves.(5) Students are only passive consumers of the content.

E-learning, a revised and updated form of discovery learning, is a student-centered learning approach based on knowledge-building. In this active learning environment, students encounter experiences that enable them to construct personal knowledge through problem-solving and experimentation.(6) These knowledge-building principles work particularly well in an e-learning setting, because e-learning provides memorable events. It is more likely that these events will come to mind as learners are challenged by on-the-job or real-life problems.

Intuitively, e-learning falls into four categories, as follows:

-Knowledge databases: These databases, the most basic forms of e-learning, offer indexed explanations, guidance, and step-by-step instructions for performing specific tasks.

-Online support: This comes in the form of forums, chat rooms, online bulletin boards, e-mail, or live instant-messaging support. It is slightly more interactive than knowledge databases.

-Asynchronous training (time independent): Such self-paced learning may include access to instructors through online bulletin boards and discussion groups, as well as e-mail.

-Synchronous training (time dependent): This consists of real-time training with a live instructor facilitating the training. Everyone logs in at a set time and can communicate directly with the instructor and with each other.

The VU must attain a high level of quality if it is to succeed in meeting local needs and competing internationally. Today, any VU is, by default, global. Hence, issues of quality are a key competitive advantage. The keys to successful e-learning are as follows:

-Vary content type: Images, sounds, and text work together to build memory in several areas of the brain and result in better retention. Mix images with words, or sounds (e.g., voices or music) with images.

-Create attention-grabbing interaction: Games, quizzes, and even required manipulation of something on the screen creates more interest, which in turn builds better retention by using multiple types of media.

-Provide immediate feedback: E-learning courses can build in immediate feedback to correct misunderstood material.

-Encourage interaction with other e-learners and an e-instructor: Chat rooms, discussion boards, instant messaging, and e-mail all offer effective interaction for e-learners, and do a good job of replacing classroom discussion.(7) Building an online community significantly influences the success of online programs.

E-learning benefits

E-learning has definite benefits over traditional classroom training. (8) While the most obvious are the flexibility and the cost savings from not having to travel or spend excess time away from work, there are also others that might not be so obvious. For example:

-Less expensive to produce: E-learning is virtually free after reaching the break-even point.

-Self-paced: Most e-learning programs can be taken when needed. Going through it at one's own pace helps avoid missing information if, for example, the student has to leave the class or does not understand exactly what the teacher is saying. This is one reason why e-learning is so effective.

-Faster paced: This individualized approach allows learners to skip material they already know and understand and move on to new material.

-Consistent message: E-learning eliminates problems associated with different instructors teaching slightly different material on the same subject.

-Availability at any location and time: E-learners can work training sessions into their schedules, now that they are freed from traveling to and sitting in classrooms.

-Interactivity: This can assume the form of simply clicking on appropriate responses to questions, clicking to animate an object or start a process, or dragging and dropping items to practice a skill. Training-related interactive games are a very effective way of improving learning.

-Updated easily and quickly: This is especially easy, since all one has to do is upload the updated materials to a server.

-Increased retention and a stronger grasp of the material: Many elements, such as video, audio, quizzes, and interaction, are combined in e-learning to reinforce the message. Being motivated to learn is half the battle. Knowing that the course contains some fun elements like video, audio, animation, and gaming scenarios increases interest and curiosity. This, too, leads to better retention and faster learning.

-Easily managed: This is especially true in the case of large student groups.


Learning is both a social and an intensely personal activity. E-learning can enhance both elements, for unlike tell-and-test learning, e-learning builds a cognitive network of understanding. Electronic media-supported discovery learning provides a safe, private, and non-embarrassing environment for learning about hazardous systems, conditions, and operations. Such an environment encourages simulated experimentation and underscores the importance of proper procedures in the real world.


  1. Michael Allen, How To Make Learning Active and Student-centered, e-Learning Magazine (Jan. 2002).
  2. Linda Harasim, The Future of E(Learning) (keynote address at University of Warwick [UK], CAL 2001 Conference).
  3. M. Bakardjieva and Linda Harasim. Collaborative Meaning-making in Computer Conferences: A Socio-cultural Perspective, in Proceedings from the Ed-Media Ed-Telecom conference in Freiburg, Germany (Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, 1998).
  4. Linda Harasim, What Are We Learning about Teaching and Learning Online-and so what? : Lessons from the Virtual-U Field Trial, (keynote speech presented at the Third Annual TeleLearning Conference, Vancouver, Canada, November 1998).
  5. A. Feenberg, Distance Learning: Promise or Threat (1999). Online
  6. Milton Campos and Linda Harasim, Virtual-U: Results and Challenges of Unique Field Trials: Technical Report (2001).
  7. Milton Campos, Conditional Reasoning: A Key to Assessing Computer-based Knowledge-building Communication Processes, Journal of Universal Computer Science 4, no. 4 (1998): 404-28.
  8. A. Breuleux, T. Laferrière, and R. Bracewell, Networked Learning Communities in Teacher Education, (1998). Online at: