Theoretical perspectives of enhancing e-learning within compulsory education


Increasingly, education settings are moving towards greater use of e-learning. This is partly a natural progression, for example, in setting homework, but the COVID-19 epidemic has more recently prompted a mass migration to online learning. Since the use of e-learning within compulsory education settings has a limited research base, the focus of this article is to properly define e-learning, discuss its role in education and provide recommendations for effective e-learning within a school setting.

What is e-learning?

There have been several attempts to rename e-learning to provide greater clarity of the term with the ‘e’ prefix replaced with, digital-, electronic-, enhanced-, online-, mobile- and so forth (Harju et al., 2019). Within the last 20 years, e-learning has become more collaborative, with the introduction of Virtual/Managed Learning Environments (VLE/MLE) such as Blackboard and Moodle. Perhaps the most important point to note here is that e-learning can be an effective tool to enhance education if it is carefully integrated into the curriculum (Etherington, 2008). The words ‘carefully’ and ‘enhance’ are significant: e-learning should not be seen as a replacement for other forms of education.

The role of the learner in e-learning

Content within e-learning is directed, but that does not mean that the learner will necessarily engage with the material. There is interplay between the learner’s level of expertise and the value they place on the learning experience – generally, as the learner progresses from a novice to an expert learner, they are more likely to place an increased value on informal learning methods (such as e-learning), while novice learners are likely to value more formal learning methods. This is important to note, given that much of the literature on e-learning relates to students within higher education, who likely have a higher level of learner autonomy than those in compulsory education.

It is therefore important to help learners develop autonomy through enhancing their self-regulation, in which they take the initiative to identify their own learning needs, set goals to address these needs and identify appropriate learning resources (Rotgans and Schmidt, 2008). Challenging activities need to be created to enable learners to link new information to their existing understanding. Consequently, the focus within e-learning should be on the instructional strategy the teacher uses, as opposed to the technology adopted to engage the learner (Bonk and Reynolds, 1997).

A study investigating learning through the use of science e-textbooks with embedded multimedia and games, involving 11 classes (grades 3 to 6) from four schools in Hong Kong, is instructive here (So et al., 2019). While most students interviewed about their experience indicated that they would have liked additional opportunities to engage with e-learning, they also reported  that they required greater direction by their teachers to help develop their understanding. Similarly, other researchers have recognised that learners can become lost or disoriented in e-learning content (e.g. Weng, 2018).

One way to support self-regulation in e-learning involves providing a graduated series of learning steps through the use of gamification or ‘the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals’, where elements of reward are used to digitally absorb players, or learners (Burke, 2014, p. 5). Riaz et al. (2019) developed a five-module e-learning intervention for elementary school pupils in Belgium which included elements of gamification, and found that it helped to keep children motivated and increased their performance on tasks. While the lack of a control group and limited sample (n=44) limits the generalisability of their findings, research suggests that gamification can be useful, for example, by utilising quizzing to provide feedback to help scaffold learning (Lan et al., 2007).

Developments and e-learning and theoretical approaches

E-learning has evolved as technology has developed. With the advancement of internet connectivity,  there has been a steady move away from more ‘programmed’ learning approaches and towards collaborative models. This distinction is known as e-learning 1.0 versus e-learning 2.0, the former based more on the ‘delivery’ of content, while the latter is based on ‘knowledge construction’, capitalising on the expansion of social software such as wikis and blogs (Pachler and Daley, 2011). Ultimately, both are integrated through blended learning, a combination of face-to-face learning and computer-based learning, potentially giving rise to e-learning 3.0.

Alongside these developments, there has been an ongoing debate about whether a specific theory of e-learning can be advanced. While some authors suggest that a theory would help guide the development of e-learning (e.g. Nichols, 2003; Siemens, 2004), others advocate that no theory is needed: that it is more important to discern how technology can be used to support existing theories of teaching and learning (Mayes and de Feitas, 2013). The range of potential theories put forward may essentially all be reduced to four core components: develop the content, compute (structure the content for learners), communicate (the content to learners), then capture (the outcome of the learning) (Quinn, 2013).

E-learning in compulsory education

When developing e-learning, particularly in the current context when its future role is indeterminable, there are a range of advantages and limitations relating to different educational domains that schools need to consider. These are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Advantages and limitations of e-learning

Domain Advantages
Constructivist learning Increases cooperation between learners
Enables interaction of less confident students
Allows sharing of knowledge and collaboration in producing new information
Inclusion Promotes greater interaction in less-confident students
Improves accessibility to education and reduces cost
Allows students to learn at anytime, anywhere
Allows a diversification of teaching methods
Provides an immediacy of feedback for formative assessments
Develops skills for living and working in a digital age
Increases self-regulation and greater autonomy of learning
Domain Disadvantages
Costs Requires materials, teaching, administration, infrastructure and management
Can be time-consuming for teachers
Training teachers to develop effective e-learning material may incur costs
Pedagogy Can contribute to physical isolation
Learner difficulties in comprehending concepts without additional teacher support
Concepts may have been unclear or ill-defined from the outset
Lack of consideration for the variety of learner preferences
Students’ self-discipline varies – some will have greater levels of autonomy than others
May be difficult to identify and measure the impact on learners
Balance between the time demands on the student and teacher
Technological issues Compatibility issues may arise between the content and the user’s mode of access and connectivity
Parental involvement Lack of family access to technology and parental experience of technology may impact support for student learning

(Adapted from Etherington, 2008; Hollingworth et al, 2011; JISC, 2007; Kozma, 2011; Salmon, 2013; So et al, 2019; Stevenson, 2011; Tour, 2019; Worthington, 2017)


A sequential checklist for developing blended-learning, initially developed for higher education, can be adapted for schools (Table 2).

Table 2: A sequential checklist to facilitate a blended-learning approach in schools (adapted from Garrison and Kanuka, 2004)

Stage Details
Planning Create a clear institutional direction and articulate this through policy development
Discuss the potential benefits, increase staff awareness, and agree to an approach
Establish a single point for support, quality assurance and project management
Establish a clear dialogue between the IT manager and the e-learning leader
Costing Create a fund to support innovation and provide incentives for staff adoption
Invest in a reliable, accessible technological infrastructure
Development Develop prototype projects and successful exemplars to model effective e-learning
Develop a formal e-learning design strategy and support capability
Continually evaluate student and staff satisfaction with the e-learning innovations
Dissemination Create a task group to address challenges and opportunities and communicate successes.

Indeed,  several of these points have been discussed by the DfE (2019), such as developing a modern infrastructure, developing greater digital skills by teachers and the need to provide high-quality continuing professional development, among others (Table 3).

Table 3: Development stages for enhancing e-learning in schools (adapted from the DfE, 2019)

Stage Details
Planning Ensure that administration, assessment and teaching practice are integrated through continuing professional development
Developing Develop an implementation strategy to overcome the barriers including addressing the infrastructure, skills, safety and procurement
Implementing Implement, integrate and innovate



E-learning should be seen as an approach to enhance, not replace education. Indeed, research is inconclusive as to any educational gain through the sole use of e-learning. Different e-learning theories exist, although Quinn’s (2013) model of content, compute, communicate and capture is perhaps the simplest to implement and synthesises many of the theories. It is important to develop learner autonomy, initially through structured guidance such as gamification. A range of issues require consideration, specifically the considerations of cost, pedagogy, time, technological issues, infrastructure, teacher training and parental involvement.


Key questions for you and colleagues

  • Is e-learning within schools predominantly 1.0 (content based), 2.0 (collaborative based) or 3.0 (a blend)?
  • How can teachers enhance student self-regulation to better prepare them for e-learning?
  • What type of authentic tasks could be developed for the year group(s) or subject(s) you teach?
  • How can schools balance the advantages versus the limitations of e-learning?
  • Has your school predominantly focused on dissemination? If so, how can the other areas of planning, costing and development be addressed?


Note: This paper has been adapted from the forthcoming publication: Castle P and Buckler S (2021) Psychology for Teachers (3rd ed). London: SAGE Publishing.



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Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. What type of authentic tasks could be developed for the year groups or subjects you teach?

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