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E-Learning: Digital Boon or Bane?

In recent times, online classes have been a means of learning for many students around the world. These classes have eliminated the need of a student to be physically present in a classroom to get access to the resources being taught. According to Derek Stockley, E-Learning is the delivery of learning, training or education program by electronic means. It involves the use of a computer or any electronic device to provide training, educational or learning material for specific users, mostly students. Distance learning was the former form of e-learning before computers became accessible. Some of the other elements involved in E-learning are internet, computers, CD-ROM and DVD. It can also be argued that E-Learning, may help to reduce problems related to attendance, time, schedule, and commutation difficulties.

This sort of learning slowly started gaining popularity in the mid-90s. Efforts were made by large institutions and corporations to change the way education is conducted. This was mostly done by investing a large amount of money into creating and converting content, such as lectures and textbook, into some E-Learning friendly forms. E-Learning can be defined in both a relatively narrow and distinct way. Through the narrower angle, E-Learning is a computer-based training, whereas, from a broader point of view, E-Learning can be any learning or training that involves the use of electronic items. Although it experienced relative failure during the beginning of the 1990s, the sector has now started to boom.

During its early failures, many firms and institutions which invested heavily in E-Learning development went into bankruptcy and many jobs were lost as firms shut down. Our question here is, what made E-Learning programs fail in the first place and what changes were required for it to head into its current success trajectory? The platform had developed rapidly in the 90s, but consumers had failed to adjust to the shocking change in the educational system (Wall and McNamee 2004). In the economic sense, potential customers may have realized the large transaction cost of shifting to E-Learning from traditional methods. The transaction cost may include the cost to buy computers and install internet, the risk from the lack of knowledge about E-Learning, the time cost to learn and research about E-learning, the psychological cost of adapting into something significantly different, and the high cost of E-Learning itself. Due to these reasons, there was a poor take-up rate in E-Learning firms and institutions. Another problem was that even if people decide to be enrolled in E-learning programs, the learning process was ineffective (Wall and McNamee 2004). There was not much of a lesson or a learning process, but instead, consumers had just accessed to pdf/word documents or PowerPoint presentations. And finally, the main problem was that it was overpriced and overhyped (Wall and McNamee 2004). Through its failures, it has “learned” its lesson and slowly adjusted into a more successful story.

E-TRAINING BY FIRMS
In 2002, firms like IBM, Cisco, GlaxoSmithKline, and the U.S. military were able to gain from E-learning by saving cost and increasing productivity to a considerable amount. Other firms and institutions also started to adjust E-learning into a more “blended learning” experience for users, which would enable them to have access to many different forms of learning tools. Some of which are, real-time virtual/ collaborative software, self-placed Web-based courses, electronic performance support system, job task environment and knowledge management systems (Singh 2003). The above figure shows a potential experience of an E-learner (Guerra and Heffernan 2004).

The rapid development of technologies and the availability of various types of computers brought a change in the needs and methods of education and training at the beginning of the 21st century. E-Learning reached one of its greatest peaks in the year 2000 as the learning experience was made more interesting, interactive, and efficient for the users at affordable costs.

In 2003, the E-Learning industry recovered from its previous failure and experienced rapid growth with the inception of about 700 E-Learning companies in the US alone. However, this number did not take into account the colleges, universities, and degree-offering programs that offered some form of E-Learning experiences for their students at that time (Capper 2003). One of the many other reasons was the need for a better and more efficient way for firms to train their employees that influenced the rapid comeback of E-learning at the beginning of the 21st century. According to the May 2000 issue of Fortune Magazine, around 70% of the world’s top-tier companies claimed that lack of trained employees was the major hindrance to sustainable growth (Fortune Magazine 2000). The optimistic expectation about the growth was also motivated by an increasing number of institutions and firms that switched to the E-learning way of training and education. Moreover, an increase in the amount of investment in the E-learning sector of over $1 billion in private capital and $302 million in public equity investment (Capper 2003) contributed much to its growth. According to firms such as IBM, Casio and much more, E-learning has made training more effective for their employees, and worker productivity has also increased noticeably.

E-EDUCATION IN ACADEMIC INSTITUTIONS
Many academic institutions have also started to implement E-Learning systems to save cost for classrooms and teaching staff, and to improve the quality of teaching (Mendling, Neumann, Pinterits, Simon, Wild) With its rapid expansion in 2003, the E-Learning industry generated a total revenue of $11,415 million. As of 2015, there were 2600 E-Learning firms and institution in the US and the figure was expected to exceed that of the traditional universities in the US by 2020.Although the previous statistics lean towards the rapid growth of the industry, the effectiveness of E-Learning remains questionable. According to Joanne Capper, students who learn using the internet also tend to be more interactive than traditional classroom students due to more individual ways of interacting compared to that in the traditional classrooms. Online “lectures” often include written notes or video podcasts that one can have access to during any time of the week. One can “attend” classes when he or she wants. Also, classes can be done any time of the day during the week according to one’s preferred schedule which leads to greater flexibility which is absent in the traditional method.

Although the previous statistics lean towards the rapid growth of the industry, the effectiveness of E-Learning remains questionable. According to Joanne Capper, students who learn using the internet also tend to be more interactive than traditional classroom students due to more individual ways of interacting compared to that in the traditional classrooms. Online “lectures” often include written notes or video podcasts that one can have access to during any time of the week. One can “attend” classes when he or she wants. Also, classes can be done any time of the day during the week according to one’s preferred schedule which leads to greater flexibility which is absent in the traditional method.According to Woolf and Regain, students also tend to ask up to an average of 117 questions per hour in a one-on-one tutoring environment in an E-classroom (Woolf and Regain 2000). This also implies that the question-answer sessions reduce the chance of students following incorrect methods of solving problems by increasing their understanding of a concept, which makes E-Learning a significant way to learn better for students.

According to Woolf and Regain, students also tend to ask up to an average of 117 questions per hour in a one-on-one tutoring environment in an E-classroom (Woolf and Regain 2000). This also implies that the question-answer sessions reduce the chance of students following incorrect methods of solving problems by increasing their understanding of a concept, which makes E-Learning a significant way to learn better for students.There are also other studies which proved that computer-assisted instructional learning increases student performance. According to Woolf and Regain, a student’s performance can go from the 50th percentile to about the 65th percentile (Woolf and Regain 2000). Furthermore, the time needed to reach academic objectives or other

There are also other studies which proved that computer-assisted instructional learning increases student performance. According to Woolf and Regain, a student’s performance can go from the 50th percentile to about the 65th percentile (Woolf and Regain 2000). Furthermore, the time needed to reach academic objectives or other academic-related materials and assistance reduced with the use of computer and internet. (Woolf and Regain 2000).

Communication in the form of group work or group discussion between teachers and peer-students has turned easier via communication systems like AIM. In addition to internet accessibility, E-Learners can easily find other resources and supports through the internet to enhance his/her learning experience while attending class at the same time. While there are many benefits of E-learning, there are also some major issues that may question its effectiveness. For example, if E-learners are not motivated to learn using this then his or her learning experience would not be as good as other motivated ones. Limitation in course offerings can also occur due to language barriers faced by students. And the continued development of technology may also create confusion amongst those who are new to such technology. (Capper 2003).

COST-EFFECTIVENESS VS. COST EFFICIENCY
As described above, the large investments from firms like IBM, Cisco, GlaxoSmithKline, the U.S. Military, and many academic institutions contributed much to the development of this sector. E-learning has proved to be cost-effective because of the increase in productivity in workers and students. However, it is still under doubts whether it can be cost-efficient or not. According to the article written by Mendling, Neumann, Pinterits, Simon, and Wild, E-learning investments can be regarded as strategic investments for academic institutions and firms that aim to achieve competitive advantage regarding cost and effectiveness structures. After the failure in the 1990s, many new business models for E-learning have been developed which gave air to the optimistic beliefs. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the investing firms and institutions to know whether their investments are cost-efficient or not.

Cost efficiency, according to Wentling and Park, is a ratio that tells how much output was obtained from the input in E-Learning. Wentling and Park also mentioned that two costs involved in E-learning are fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs are technology coordination salary, administrative time, equipment, contracted server support, network support, and office communication cost (Wentling and Park). Variable costs are faculty salaries, technology support staff, teaching assistants salary, course materials, and mailing cost (Wentling and Park). Their study on of E-learning only took into direct account costs of E-Learning operation and ignored the other general costs of running a whole institution.

THE HIGH SETUP COST OF E-LEARNING
In a study by Wentling and Park it is shown that the total cost of the program exceeds the total revenue, making E-Learning cost-inefficient. Another thing Wentling and Park pointed out is that revenue of E-Learning programs are based on tuition fees received from enrolled students. However, most costs are fixed, and some enrolled students do not affect those cost. In other words, the increase in students does not increase the total cost, whereas a decrease in students also does not affect the total cost. Therefore, for E-learning to be cost-efficient, the number of students enrolled is very important to justify costs that are the inputs of E-Learning programs. Furthermore, things like the difficulty to measure inputs and outputs regarding ability, effort, environment, and other things cannot be quantified. Therefore, in study, they emphasized that the cost analysis in educational settings do not need to include all costs, unlike other business cost-analysis models.

Similarly, we need to realize that cost-efficiency and cost-effectiveness are two different types of economic measures. An E-Learning program may be cost-efficient, but it does not necessarily mean that it is cost-effective if the program is not relevant to learner’s needs, such as human capital and product development. Likewise, it can be cost-inefficient because the cost is higher than the output but could be cost-effective because of its achievement in meeting learner’s needs of human capital and productivity development. In other words, cost efficiency and cost-effectiveness do not necessarily equate, especially not in an educational cost-analysis setting.

In the point of view of a learner, it is common to think that he or she would want inputs (costs) to be less than outputs (gains). However, according to Twigg and Ruth, there is often a trade-off between cost and quality, in this case the one between cost and enrollment (Kingma and Schisa). From an E-Learning firm’s point of view, an increase in the amount of enrollment would be better because it increases the possibility to cover the total cost of starting an E-Learning program. However, an increase in enrollment may also mean that the time contributed to each student by an individual instructor would decrease, which in turn may decrease the quality of learning. As a learner takes into account of technologies used in an E-Learning program, the cost-analysis may become easier to understand because output would most likely increase, and cover the cost of enrollment.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ŠTEFAN ŠTEFANČÍK ON UNSPLASH

ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS
While the benefits and issues of E-Learning may be important for students, the cost and benefits of E-Learning should also be considered. This is true in case of some universities who offer either only campus courses, or only online courses, while others offer both campus and online courses. The inputs of a university are the faculty, staff, network, software, and buildings which are combined to offer campus or online courses. This university employs a collection of full-time and part-time

While the benefits and issues of E-Learning may be important for students, the cost and benefits of E-Learning should also be considered. This is true in case of some universities who offer either only campus courses, or only online courses, while others offer both campus and online courses. The inputs of a university are the faculty, staff, network, software, and buildings which are combined to offer campus or online courses. This university employs a collection of full-time and part-time faculty, and builds campus classrooms, offices, and dormitories in support of a student body. It is highly questionable whether the inputs are likely to be changed if new offerings are made. We will now see a comparison between the brick and mortar institutions and E-Learning institutions.This study compared how much it costs the university to offer a large undergraduate course online versus a traditional classroom format.

This study compared how much it costs the university to offer a large undergraduate course online versus a traditional classroom format.
Using an instructor time log, costs were measured in relation to the time spent:(A)

(A)
• Working with project staff,
• Planning the course,
• Preparing the course for online delivery
• Delivering the course,
• Interacting with the students,
• Evaluating student performance, and
• Training and supervising TA’s.

(B)
Fixed costs involved setting up the hardware, software, and the content.
The findings from this study revealed that the instructor spent more time on the traditional course than the online (112 hours compared to 107 hours, respectively) and that the overall cost per student who passed the course was less for online courses ($99) than those face-to-face ($105). (Tana Bishop, 2007). In a traditional setting, when the number of students increases, there is an added cost of building new classes and even buildings but when it is compared to online education, E-Learners do not need a physical classroom so the incremental cost is less. The diagram below shows the average cost tends to increase with Brick and Mortar education as the number of students increased and with online education, the cost tends to decrease so economies of scale are experienced in the latter.

WEAKNESSES OF E-LEARNING
a) Lock in and Switching Costs Involved
The teachers may be locked in after using a software for their course material and may incur switching costs like network costs, learning costs, financial costs and searching costs and even some features that could be overlapped technically.

b) Equity and Accessibility to Technology
Before any online program to flourish, it must have students who can access the online learning environment. Lack of access whether it be for economical or logistics reasons will exclude otherwise eligible students from the course. This is a significant issue in rural and lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods. Furthermore, from an administrative point of view, if students cannot afford the technology the institution employs, they are lost as customers.

c) Limitations of Technology
User-friendly and reliable technology is critical to a successful online program. However, even the most sophisticated technology is not 100% reliable. Unfortunately, it is not a question of if the equipment used in an online program will fail, but when. When everything is running smoothly, technology is intended to be low profile and is used as a tool in the learning process. However, breakdowns can occur at any point along the system, for example, the server which hosts the program could crash and cut all participants off from the class; a participant may access the class through a networked computer which could go down; individual PCs can have numerous problems which could limit students’ access; finally, the Internet connection could fail, or the institution hosting the connection could become bogged down with users and either slow down, or fail altogether. In situations like these, the technology is neither seamless nor reliable, and it can make the learning experience worse.

d) Lack of Essential Online Qualities
Successful on-ground instruction does not always translate to successful online instruction. If facilitators are not properly trained in online delivery and methodologies, the success of the online program will be compromised. An instructor must be able to communicate well via writing and in the language in which the course is offered. An online program will be weakened if its facilitators are inadequately prepared to function in the virtual classroom.

IN CONCLUSION
The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. Lastly, we would like to say that E-Learning should be a beneficial investment for a country because of the increase in productivity, knowledge, and educational level that it brings for the society. Although there many underlying uncertainties, E-Learning is socially optimal for our society.

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