E-Learning in Organizations

E-Learning Introduction

General Definition

What is E-learning?

E-learning stands for electronic learning. It has been defined by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) as “a wide set of applications and processes, such as Web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, and digital collaboration. It includes the delivery of content via Internet, intranet/extranet(LAN/WAN), audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, and CD-ROM”. In a more narrow definition, e-learning refers to online learning.

To summarize: E-learning is the use of electronic technology for the acquisition and development of knowledge 💡

What does E-Learning stand for?

  • Ergonomic learning
  • Executive learning
  • Electronic learning
  • Essential learning

Which of the following options refer to E-Learning?

  • Using a crossword puzzle app on your smartphone
  • Accessing Facebook with a desktop computer
  • Watching educational videos on YouTube
  • Participating in a data analysis course on Coursera

What is the narrow definition of E-Learning?

  • Using discussion forums to communicate with other learners (peer learning)
  • Using the internet for learning (online learning)
  • Using electronic technology, such as smartphone, eBook reader or CD-ROM (e-learning)
  • Using instructional videos and audiotapes for learning (audio-visual learning)

E-Learning in Organizations

Purpose of E-Learning in Organizations

Organizations can make use of e-learning to train...  

  • new employees and facilitate their induction training
  • employees' soft skills such as effective communication or creative thinking
  • employees' technical or professional knowledge when new developments in their field occur

Powerful Tool

E-learning is a powerful tool for delivering many and a variety of instructional technologies and methods. For example, it can be used to present online lectures through the use of live stream audio and video technology, textual materials in the form of electronic PowerPoint slides or PDF documents, and it facilitates discussions through the use of message boards, forums and chatrooms.

Advantages in Training through E-learning

Through e-learning, it is possible for organizations to deliver training to all employees on demand - anytime and anywhere. Furthermore, training content can be easily updated when necessary and travel costs to outside training facilities are reduced. 

For which purposes can organizations make use of E-Learning?

  • Diagnosing low performance employees to cancel their contract
  • Training soft skills and imparting technical and professional knowledge
  • E-Learning as support of induction trainings for new employees
  • Reducing costs by not hiring trainers or instructional designers

How do organizations profit from E-Learning?

  • E-Learning offers a variety of instructional methods
  • E-Learning training materials can be easily updated
  • E-Learning facilitates the distribution of content by making it accessible anytime and anywhere
  • E-Learning can replace traditional trainings completely and massively reduce costs

Enhancing Engagement

Learning through Games

Learning games are typically associated with entertainment and recreation. Therefore, they can improve employee performance in e-learning through increasing the appeal of e-learning as a training medium. Games can encourage employees to practice extensively and thereby to discover patterns and relationships within the training material.  They also reduce the fears typically associated with testing and evaluation during training, so that learners can show their full potential. 

Customization and Personalization

Organizations can also engage learners through customization and personalization of the learning experience. Customization involves the adaptation of instructional elements to meet learner preferences and needs. Personalization refers to changes that are made to the structure of the program to give the feeling that the learner is engaged in a conversation with the program. 

Example I

SmartTutor is an intelligent, Web-based tutoring system that is used in adult education in Hong Kong. It uses information about the student and the course content to provide personalized feedback about performance in the course, tailored advice for future work in the course, and adaptive tests that are based on students’ current knowledge level. 

Example II

Hewlett-Packard's (HP) motto for training is “one size does not fit all", so it allows its regional trainers in countries around the world to select the best delivery modes for training their employees. HP has found that employee preferences differ around the world: In Asia, employees prefer instructor-presented or blended learning options, whereas in the United States and Europe, employees prefer self-paced and instructor-presented learning approaches.

What are possible ways to enhance engagement?

  • Designing courses as learning games
  • Aligning e-learning strategies with employees' preferences
  • Providing individual feedback, directions for future learning and adaptive testing
  • Assigning tasks after every unit to assess learning progress

Challenges for E-Learning at the Workplace


As useful e-learning might be, it is important to address challenges that come along with e-learning at the workplace.

  • Using e-learning to merely replicate traditional learning methods (e.g.  static e-learning without interaction or feedback) can make learners resistent to it.
  • E-learning content is often generic and irrelevant to daily work or not properly integrated with business processes.
  • E-learning has to be introduced effectively - it is not enough to merely offer courses. The organizational culture must support e-learning.
  • The evaluation of e-learning programs is often neglected.

Evaluation of E-Learning

Four Stages

Four levels of training evaluation

This review refers to Kirkpatrick's study in Craig's Training and development handbook.

The levels of training evaluation are as following:

  1.  reactions,
  2. learning, 
  3. employee behavior,
  4. organizational results.,

E-learning’s effectiveness includes both classroom and workplace settings. The relevant categories (tags) are the evaluation, assessment, satisfaction, and effectiveness. Many outcomes compare e-learning programs to traditional lecture-based college courses or discuss blended learning versus e-learning alone.

Kirkpatrick, D. L. 1976. Evaluation of training. In R. L. Craig (Ed.), Training and development handbook: A guide to human resource development, 2nd ed.: 18.1-18.27. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Which of the following describes a stage of Kirkpatricks evaluation model?

  • Behavior
  • Results
  • Reaction
  • Learning

1. Reactions


Most organizations rely on the first level of evaluation framework: Employee reactions. They involve attitudes toward e-learning and satisfaction with it. The sources of data might be found in the meta-analysis examining e.g. student satisfaction levels with distance learning and traditional classroom instruction. In Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, & Mabry (2004) analysis, learners demonstrated a slight preference for more traditional forms of instruction and had higher satisfaction levels with face-to-face than distance education. Other findings are based on several large-scale surveys.  For instance, a survey by Skillsoft of 204 e-learning users in 15 organizations (e.g., AT&T, FedEx, Lloyds TSB, Nestlé) reported that employees generally find e-learning to be enjoyable and would likely recommend e-learning to coworkers.

Conclusion: Organizational employees found favourable reactions toward e-learning and its potential to provide a satisfying training experience is promising 💡

Allen, M., Mabry, E., Mattrey, M., Bourhis, J., Titsworth, S. Burrell, N., et al. 2004. Evaluating the effectiveness of distance learning: A comparison using meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 54: 402-420.Skillsoft. 2004. EMEA e-learning benchmark survey: The user’s perspective. Middlesex, UK: Author


Which of the following is related to the first stage (Reaction)?

  • Attitudes towards E-Learning
  • Satisfaction with E-Learning
  • Increased knowledge through E-Learning
  • Increased productivity through E-Learning

2. Learning


The second level of evaluation is particularly important for managers and training developers to study. It indicates whether participants gained knowledge of the core topics and principles taught during training and many organizations and educational institutions conduct evaluations of learning outcomes. 

Several studies have found poorer learning outcomes associated with e-learning (see Section 1) in comparison with classroom-based instruction. 

But several studies examining the learning outcomes of e-learning have found no difference in the posttest performances of students in e-learning or traditional delivery modes (see Section 2). 

In contrast to the first, several studies have shown that e-learning can improve learning and achievement scores for students and employees. These findings suggest that e-learning has the potential to enhance students’ immediate and long-term learning outcomes (see Section 3).

It is difficult to decide whether e-learning is more, less, or equally effective than traditional training as the each study's focus is different in many ways. 

Conclusion: We are not able to conclude a complex comparison, but there are likely to be important moderators of the relationship between e-learning and learning outcomes 💡       

Section 1

Waschull, S. B. 2001. The online delivery of psychology courses: Attrition, performance, and evaluation. Teaching of Psychology, 28: 143-146.Mottarella, K. E., Fritzsche, B. A., & Parrish, T. J. 2004. Who learns more? Achievement scores following Web-basedversus classroom instruction in psychology courses. Psychology of Learning and Teaching, 4: 50-53.Wang, A. Y., & Newlin, M. H. 2000. Characteristics of students who enroll and succeed in psychology Web-based classes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92: 137-143.

Section 2

Burgess, J. R. D., & Russell, J. E. A. 2003. The effectiveness of distance learning initiatives in organizations. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 63: 289-303.Alexander, J. W., Polyakova-Norwood, V., Johnston, L. W., Christensen, P., & Loquist, R. S. 2003. Collaborative development and evaluation of an online nursing course. Distance Education, 24: 41-56.Smith, S. B., Smith, S. J., & Boone, R. 2000. Increasing access to teacher preparation: The effectiveness of traditional instructional methods in an online learning environment. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15: 37-46.Sparrow, S. 2004. Blended is better. T+D, 58: 52-55.

Section 3

Brown, K. G. 2001. Using computers to deliver training: Which employees learn and why? Personnel Psychology, 54:271-296.Allen, M., Mabry, E., Mattrey, M., Bourhis, J., Titsworth, S. Burrell, N., et al. 2004. Evaluating the effectiveness of distancelearning: A comparison using meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 54: 402-420.

How can one describe the effectiveness of E-Learning regarding knowledge growth?

  • In general, E-Learning yields better results than traditional delivery modes.
  • In general, E-Learning yields worse results than traditional delivery modes.
  • E-Learning and traditional delivery modes do not differ.
  • Study results regarding this topic are mixed.

3. Behavior


Improvements in learning do not necessarily mean changes in employee behavior. The third level evaluation framework refers to whether the skills learned in training transfer to the job. In general, studies on the topic have supported the use of e-learning for improving work behaviors. Even educational computer games can be useful and effective tools for improving employee behavior (e.g. attention control). Several studies like Thomson's (2003) have found benefits of e-learning for an on-the-job performance (e-learning was significantly more effective in improving performance). 

In a large-scale Skillsoft's survey, 87% of e-learning users reported using skills and knowledge they had gained from e-learning back on the job. For participants, business areas most improved by e-learning were computer and IT skills, communication with co-workers and with customers/suppliers, business outcomes (e.g., sales), work processes (e.g., project management), and personal skills (e.g., leadership, assertiveness).

Conclusion: Employee behavior can be effectively changed as a result of e-learning 💡 

Thomson NETg. 2003. Thomson job impact study-final results-the next generation of corporate learning: Achieving the right blend. Naperville, IL: NETg.   Skillsoft. 2004. EMEA e-learning benchmark survey: The user’s perspective. Middlesex, UK: Author

Which are possible outcomes to assess behavioral changes through E-Learning?

  • Communication with co-workers or customers
  • IT skills
  • Personal skills such as leadership
  • The outcomes depend on the E-Learning course content.

4. Organizational Results

Organizational Results

The level of evaluation most frequently overlooked by e-learning researchers and practitioners is the fourth: E-learning’s impact on organizational results. Not much research examines the return-on-investment and business outcomes of organizational training programs. A few organizations have attempted to do so. 

HP, for example, found that sales increased by several million US dollars after e-learning (Hoekstra, 2001). A different way of measuring is to examine how e-learning contributes to the completion of organizational objectives and goals. The core business strategies are being accomplished through the use of e-learning (Overton, 2004).

Conclusion: E-learning can positively influence organizational outcomes and it includes e.g. production levels, employee turnover, quality measures, and absenteeism 💡

Hoekstra, J. 2001. Three in one. Online Learning, 5: 28-32.Overton, L. 2004. Linking learning to business: Summary report 2004. Reading, UK: Bizmedia Ltd.Strother, J. B. 2002. An assessment of the effectiveness of e-learning in corporate training programs. InternationalReview of Research in Open and Distance Learning [Online], 3.    

What are positive organizational results?

  • increased sales
  • decreased turnover rates
  • decreased absenteeism
  • increased productivity

Blended Learning

Blended Learning

Organizations are increasingly turning toward blended learning (a combination of e-learning and other training media) rather than e-learning alone. It appeals to the needs and learning styles of a variety of trainees. Thomson study involved 200 employees in three groups, each group differing in the amount of instructor support or reference material they were provided. Participants in the e-learning condition completed their instruction completely online, without the benefit of a classroom environment. Study results revealed that participants in the blended-learning environments performed real-world tasks with between 27% to 32% better accuracy than the e-learning-only group and in between 41% to 51% less time. 

Conclusion: Blended learning does offer organizations some benefits over stand-alone e-learning programs, particularly with respect to a transfer of training outcomes 💡

Thomson NETg. 2003. Thomson job impact study-final results-the next generation of corporate learning: Achieving the right blend. Naperville, IL: NETg.

How to Enhance Effectiveness?

Principles for Enhancing E-Learning’s Effectiveness

There are several design elements that have been shown to potentially improve the effectiveness of e-learning medium. Mayer’s principles are both broad in scope (i.e., they cover many different aspects of designing e-learning), they are based on the tenets of cognitive learning theory and an extensive program of empirical research, and they are widely applicable and well grounded in theory and research findings.

Mayer, R. E. (2017) Using multimedia for e-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, doi: 10.1111/jcal.12197

Conclusion: Research findings support the benefits of using these principles 💡

Which of the following is not one of Mayer's principles to enhance effectiveness?

  • Voice principle
  • Modality principle
  • Customization principle
  • Redundancy principle

Research on E-Learning

Future Directions

Bridging the gap between research and practice

Since researches lag behind the practice of e-learning, the following research ideas are proposed as a way to help bridge the gap between research and practice.

More theories are needed in the research of e-learning, they are used to make practical predictions about organizations and workplace environments, to explain various employee behaviors, and to create the workplace conditions necessary for maximizing performance. Without theory, practitioners have to rely on fragmented advice from researchers who do not have the research results to inform designers on how to use various e-learning options to create an e-learning program that effectively and efficiently promotes positive learning outcomes.

Why are more theories about e-learning needed?

  • to create workplace conditions that maximize e-learning effects
  • to create e-learning programs that fit organizations, employees and their needs
  • to make practical predictions about organizations and work environments
  • to better understand underlying mechanisms of e-learning

Research Orientation

Focus on the learner

Research should be more learner focused than technology focused. Technology will continue to outpace e-learning research findings, so it is unrealistic to expect that researchers could empirically examine the usefulness of each new technology to e-learning outcomes prior to its use in e-learning programs. Instead, research should examine the value and limits of the application of technology. In their meta-analysis, Allen et al. (2002) found that too strong of an emphasis on technology led to a decrement in learner attitudes toward e-learning. A stronger focus on the learner rather than on the technology in e-learning research and practice is likely to lead to the development of more effective e-learning programs, which in turn will likely improve learner satisfaction with e-learning.

Another finding that supports a greater learner orientation in e-learning research is that of Wisher and Curnow (1999). The authors deliberately turned the video in e-learning projects off and on for certain participants during training, comparing trainees’ performance during these times. However, the audio portion of the instructor’s lectures was still available to all participants. Learners without the video performed just as well as learners with it. In other words, seeing the instructor during training was unimportant to learner performance in the online program, and, consequently, the video could have been removed from the training without negative consequences.

The majority of the research examining e-learning’s effectiveness takes place in educational environments with elementary to college age students; however as the previous concern, e-learning should be more learner orientation. Thus, it is important to conduct e-learning research in working place. For example, organizations often use simulation-based training to build specific skills. Game-based learning may be particularly useful for skill building as it can provide necessary practice opportunities and feedback at the same time that it is fun, engaging, and motivating to learners (Prensky, 2001). Research also shows that the pretraining environment and climate for learning in organizations can affect how much learning occurs in training. If training is framed negatively or if employees have had negative experiences with past training opportunities, for example, motivation to learn can be negatively affected (Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 2000). Thus, we would predict that the climate for learning would be even more important to learning outcomes in e-learning.

Why is the climate of learning important?

  • If learning is framed negatively, motivation to learn decreases which leads to negative outcomes.
  • When learners feel too cold or too hot, they cannot concentrate on the content.
  • Negative training experiences can lead to ineffective learning.
  • A positive climate of learning can support the effectiveness of e-learning programs.


E-learning has the potential to be an effective training medium as it offers trainees the opportunity to receive information in various formats and to access this information anytime and anywhere. 

For this reasion, it is even more important to do more research about e-learning at the workplace in order to make a better use of it.



E-learning has been increasingly employed in workplace settings to support employee training and development. It makes on-the-job training more accessible, flexible and convenient than traditional approaches and has a substantial impact on promoting self-paced, lifelong learning, social interaction, and organizational learning and knowledge management. 

While e-learning has been increasingly used by organizations, there are a variety of challenges to the success of e-learning initiatives. Therefore, more research is needed to overcome these barriers and to be able to create effective e-learning programs for each organization with their special needs. 

To assess the effectiveness of e-learning programs, Kirkpatrick's model of evaluation should be applied, which focuses on four stages: Reaction, learning, behavior and results. Results from previous studies about the effectiveness of e-learning are mixed. Therefore, it is even more important to do more research and identify moderatoring variables.


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Thank you for your interest and for participating in this course about e-learning in organizations. We hope that you have gained a deeper understanding of the topic. For more detailed information, we suggest following resource:

Wang, M. (2017). E-Learning in the Workplace: A Performance-Oriented Approach Beyond Technology. Springer.