Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning:An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkAlbert Sangrà, Dimitrios Vlachopoulos, and Nati CabreraUniversitat Oberta de Catalunya, SpainAbstractE-learning is part of the new dynamic that characterises educational systems at the start ofthe 21st century. Like society, the concept of e-learning is subject to constant change. In addition, it is difficult to come up with a single definition of e-learning that would be acceptedby the majority of the scientific community. The different understandings of e-learning areconditioned by particular professional approaches and interests.An international project, based on the participation of experts around the world, was undertaken to agree on a definition of e-learning. To this end, two main research activitieswere carried out. First, an extensive review was conducted of the literature on the conceptof e-learning, drawing from peer-reviewed journals, specialised web pages, and books. Second, a Delphi survey was sent out to gather the opinions of recognised experts in the fieldof education and technology regarding the concept of e-learning with a view to reaching afinal consensus.This paper presents the outcomes of the project, which has resulted in an inclusive definition of e-learning subject to a high degree of consensus that will provide a useful conceptualframework to further identify the different models in which e-learning is developed andpracticed.Keywords: E-learning; definition; distance education; technology-enhanced education

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and CabreraIntroductionIn recent decades, the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for educational purposes has increased, and the spread of network technologies has caused elearning practices to evolve significantly (Kahiigi et al., 2008). However, any definition of elearning must settle the issue of what is and what is not e-learning (Guri-Rosenbilt, 2005).The multiplicity of perspectives surrounding e-learning causes confusion and, sometimes,even contradictions (Mason & Rennie, 2006). Not only have different concepts been attributed to e-learning, but the term has also been substituted by others, such as computerbased learning, technology-based training, and computer-based training, which actuallypredate the first mention of e-learning in the mid-1990s (Friesen, 2009) or the more recentonline learning. Moreover, some people confuse the concept of e-learning with the concepts of a virtual campus or online courses, which can be part of the e-learning universe butdo not sufficiently define it.The evolution of distance education, as a result of new technologies and the contributionsof computer scientists to the field of education along with the conceptualisation of education as a lifelong process, poses a major challenge for educational institutions: how to integrate these technologies into their organisation and, especially, into their teaching. Fromsimple occasional use of ICT to reinforce face-to-face teaching and learning to the use ofvirtual environments for courses conducted completely online according to a variety of educational models, the incorporation of ICT into the learning process is being achieved fromvery different perspectives and through an extensive range of formulas, albeit with onecommon denominator: the use of practices whose origin and pedagogical foundations lie indistance education.The discussion of the definition and practices of e-learning focuses on the intersection ofeducation, teaching, and learning with ICT (Friesen, 2009). It is undoubtedly preceded bytwo other disciplines: educational technology and distance education. Both have significantly contributed to the intensive use of ICT for educational purposes, but neither can bestrictly equated with e-learning.E-learning could also be considered a natural evolution of distance learning, which hasalways taken advantage of the latest tools to emerge in the context of technologies for structuring education. In fact, some authors consider e-learning to be a new generation of distance education, even as they point to significant differences between the two and highlighta key starting point: “E-learning does not represent more of the same ( ) [It is] about doingthings differently” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p. 7).However, the suspicion that different meanings or definitions of e-learning are conditionedby particular professional approaches and, more importantly, by particular individual orcorporate interests underscores the need to analyse this field of knowledge.Studies attempting to provide inclusive, or umbrella, definitions of concepts are quite common in the social sciences and psychology (Castle, 2000; Eagly & Chaiken, 2007; Jones,Vol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012146

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabrera1999; Waddington, Badge, & Bull, 2005). In the educational sciences, studies from differentknowledge areas can also be found that aim to define concepts used with different meaningsby the scientific community (Allen, 2004; Baker, 1979; Garavan, 1997; Stanovich, 1998;Wright, 2002). Finally, it is worth noting that in the field of distance education, importantstudies have been conducted with a view to defining similar concepts to e-learning (Keegan,1980, 1988; Garrison & Shale, 1987). These studies offer proof that there has, since the veryemergence of distance education, been a need to create a common frame of reference for it.An agreement on how to define e-learning could help research and researchers go forward inidentifying models and practices for applying e-learning and in determining the key factorsfor better and more effective use of this type of teaching and learning: “There is a pressingrequirement to understand better the nature of e-learning, as an educational innovation,and to evolve contextually derived frameworks for change which align with organisationalculture and practice” (Rossiter, 2007, p. 93). The challenge of finding a single, inclusivedefinition of e-learning is the starting point for this study. As Renold and Barter (2003, p.91) stated, an inclusive definition is “a broader definition that encompasses a wider spectrum of the concept and can cope with the complexity of its representation/characteristics.”Research DesignThe main aim of this study was to create an inclusive definition of e-learning that would beaccepted by the majority of the scientific community and would also define the boundariesfor future activity in this sector. Two main research activities were carried out to achievethis aim.1.An extensive literature review: Indexed and peer-reviewed journals, government reports, web pages, and books were considered and analysed. The main objective of thisactivity was to collect the available definitions of e-learning in order to compare andcategorise them according to their main perspective and focus.2.A Delphi survey: Online questionnaires were sent to recognised experts in the field ofeducation and ICT in order to determine their perceptions of and beliefs regarding elearning with a view to reaching a final consensus and creating an inclusive definition.The entirety of this second research activity was monitored and evaluated by educational research methodology experts from the Netherlands, Spain, and Canada.Literature ReviewA literature review is understood as a description of the relevant literature on a particularfield or topic (University of Canberra, 2006). The topics used for this review were e-learning and definition, and the search was performed in the field of education and ICT.The search was limited to literature published in or after 2005 as for a new concept such ase-learning that is characterised by constant change, it was considered preferable to workwith papers published in the last five years. However, definitions of e-learning dating frombefore 2005 were considered when designing the research as some of these definitions haveVol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012147

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabreraprovided the basis for newer ones.Three main sources of literature were used for the review:1.academic and scientific journals indexed in the Social Sciences Citation Index (ISI Webof Knowledge) in or after 2005;2.books and book chapters, government reports, and doctoral dissertations related toeducation and ICT and e-learning, published in or after 2005; virtual spaces (e.g., blogs, institutional web pages, glossaries) by recognised authors, where education and ICT and e-learning are analysed and discussed.The definitions gathered from the literature review focus on different elements of e-learning. Specifically, four general categories of definitions were identified: 1) technology-driven,2) delivery-system-oriented, 3) communication-oriented, and 4) educational-paradigmoriented.Technology-Driven DefinitionsThis category mostly includes definitions from private companies and a few academics thatemphasise the technological aspects of e-learning, while presenting the rest of its characteristics as secondary. The definitions in this category portray e-learning as the use of technology for learning. Representative samples of this category include the following. “E-learning is the use of electronic media for a variety of learning purposes that rangefrom add-on functions in conventional classrooms to full substitution for the face-toface meetings by online encounters” (Guri-Rosenblit, 2005). “E-learning is to take a course online using a modem, wireless, or cable connection toaccess academic course material from a computer, phone, or handheld device” (Governors State University, 2008). “E-learning is distance education through remote resources” (Marquès, 2006). “E-learning is the use of technology to deliver learning and training programs” (Elearning portal, 2009).Delivery-System-Oriented DefinitionsThis category presents e-learning as a means of accessing knowledge (through learning,teaching, or training). In other words, the focus of these definitions is the accessibility ofresources and not the results of any achievements. Representative samples from this category include the following. “E-learning is the delivery of education (all activities relevant to instructing, teaching,and learning) through various electronic media” (Koohang & Harman, 2005).Vol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012148

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabrera “E-learning is an on-line education defined as the self-paced or real-time delivery oftraining and education over the internet to an end-user device” (Lee & Lee, 2006). “E-learning is the delivery of a learning, training or education program by electronicmeans” (Li, Lau & Dharmendran, 2009). “E-learning is defined as education delivered, or learning conducted, by Web techniques” (Liao & Lu, 2008).Communication-Oriented DefinitionsThis category considers e-learning to be a communication, interaction, and collaborationtool and assigns secondary roles to its other aspects and characteristics. Representativeexamples of these definitions, which come mostly from the academic and communicationsectors, include the following. “E-learning is education that uses computerised communication systems as an environment for communication, the exchange of information and interaction between students and instructors” (Bermejo, 2005). “E-learning is learning based on information and communication technologies withpedagogical interaction between students and the content, students and the instructorsor among students through the web” (González-Videgaray, 2007). “E-learning is defined as learning facilitated by the use of digital tools and content thatinvolves some form of interactivity, which may include online interaction between thelearner and their teacher or peers” (Ministry of Communication and Technology ofNew Zealand, 2008).Educational-Paradigm-Oriented DefinitionsThis category defines e-learning as a new way of learning or as an improvement on an existing educational paradigm. The majority of the authors falling into this category work in theeducation sector. Some of the most representative examples of these definitions include thefollowing. “E-learning is the use of new multimedia technologies and the Internet to improve thequality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services, as well as remoteexchange and collaboration” (Alonso et al., 2005). “E-learning is a broad combination of processes, content, and infrastructure to usecomputers and networks to scale and/or improve one or more significant parts of alearning value chain, including management and delivery” (Aldrich, 2005). “E-learning is defined as information and communication technologies used to supportstudents to improve their learning” (Ellis, Ginns & Piggott, 2009). “E-learning refers to educational processes that utilise information and communica-Vol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012149

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabrerations technology to mediate synchronous as well as asynchronous learning and teaching activities” (Jereb & Šmitek, 2006).Survey of Expert OpinionsA Delphi survey was used to determine experts’ perceptions and knowledge with a view toreaching a final consensus. This method makes it possible to deal with complex problems(Linstone & Turoff, 1975), such as the creation of an inclusive definition of e-learning.Delphi studies are considered particularly useful in the field of pedagogy (Yousuf, 2007).Rieger (1986) reported that 83% of the PhD theses completed between 1981 and 1984 usedthe Delphi technique and concluded that “it seems reasonable to claim that Delphi is continuing to be a much used tool in the search for answers to normative questions, especiallyin education areas” (p. 198). The Delphi technique, it should be noted, is also widely usedin the field of emerging education technologies. Some of the most important studies inthis field based on leveraging established expertise to provide the input for and informsuch analyses include the NMC Horizon Report series by the New Media Consortium andthe Educause Learning Initiative (Johnson, Smith, Willis, Levine, & Haywood, 2011), theFuture of the Internet Report series by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and ElonUniversity (Anderson & Rainie, 2008) and the Top Teaching and Learning Challenges2009 project by Educause (Little & Page, 2009).Online questionnaires were sent to recognised experts in the field of education and ICT. Experts was understood to refer to people who are partially or fully devoted to conducting research in this field and have published their findings in journal articles, books, governmentreports, theses, and dissertations. The main purpose of the survey was to determine theirperceptions of the e-learning concept. They were asked to define the e-learning concept, toname its main components, and to categorise it among the scientific fields.Following a pilot Delphi round, two more rounds were carried out. The surveys containedopen and closed questions, and respondents were asked to give spontaneous but reasonedanswers. The pilot round was used to validate the questionnaire with the participation ofexperts in the fields of educational research methodology and education and ICT from theNetherlands, Spain, and Canada. Some minor modifications were made based on their recommendations.The first survey round contained a total of 15 questions and was divided into two mainparts. The first part consisted of 10 demographic questions related to the experts’ age, placeof residence, sex, studies, academic profile, professional experience in e-learning, and contact details. The second part included a brief summary of the review of the literature on thee-learning concept, including a description of the four general definition categories mentioned above. Following this introduction, five questions asked the experts for their opinionabout the conceptual framework of e-learning in relation to the different categories identified in the literature review. A Likert scale from 1 to 5 (1 does not represent the e-learningconcept; 5 represents the e-learning concept exactly) was provided to answer the firstVol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012150

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabreraquestion.The second question complemented the first since the experts were asked to justify theirprevious evaluation and to explain whether they believed that there was a single categoryable to offer an inclusive definition of e-learning. The third and fourth questions askedwhether they believed there was any other category of e-learning definitions that had notbeen mentioned in the survey. If so, they were asked to name it and to describe its maincharacteristics. Finally, the last question offered the participating experts an open space forcomments.Based on the above definition of expert and with a view to including participants from allcontinents, an initial list of a total of 103 experts was drawn up. During the first round, 33experts answered the survey (32% of the initial population), a number considered satisfactory for an anonymous study conducted online. Table 1 shows the geographical distributionof the experts.Table 1Geographical Distribution of the Participating ExpertsSpain (7)Greece (1)France (1)Puerto Rico (1)Norway (1)Switzerland (1)USA (2)Japan (1)Germany (1)United Kingdom (1)Canada (4)Australia (1)Italy (1)Netherlands (1)Brazil (1)New Zealand (1)Total: 33 experts (14 women; 19 men)The majority of the experts (85%) were over the age of 45. While they had different educational backgrounds, most had an educational profile. With regard to their current occupation, 85% of the participants work as academics or research staff at higher educationinstitutions, while the remaining 15% come from the corporate sector. As for the four definition categories, most respondents (85%) felt that the educational paradigm category bestrepresents the conceptual framework of e-learning. Figure 1 shows the average scores ery systemCommunicationEducational ParadigmFigure 1. Evaluation of the four definition categories by the participating experts (1 doesnot represent the e-learning concept; 5 represents the e-learning concept exactly).Vol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012151

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and CabreraIn addition to their evaluations, the experts provided some very useful comments regardinghow e-learning should be defined and offered important arguments to be considered withregard to the construction of an inclusive definition. Their contribution can be summarisedin four main points.1.The quickly changing nature of the uses of technology for teaching and learning mustbe taken into consideration when preparing a definition of e-learning.2.E-learning can be used not only for collaborative learning, but also for autonomous,individual learning.3.E-learning is a means of facilitating the achievement of (formal or informal) learninggoals.4.E-learning is a new learning/training model, a new way to learn.In the second round, the experts were encouraged to revise their earlier answers in light ofthe responses of the other members of the panel. Over the course of this process, the degreeof disagreement was expected to decrease and the group was expected to converge towardsan agreed statement.Nevertheless, they were encouraged to change their opinions only if they agreed with themost popular answer and were convinced that it was the most suitable one. Since no majordifferences were found among the experts’ arguments and comments regarding the creation of an inclusive definition of e-learning, it was considered that one more round wouldbe enough to reach a final consensus.In this context and after taking into consideration all their comments and arguments, apreliminary definition of e-learning was prepared, containing aspects of all four generalcategories. The experts were asked to evaluate it in the final Delphi round. The preliminarydefinition was as follows:E-learning is an approach to teaching and learning,representing all or part of the educational model applied,that is based on the use of electronic media and devicesas tools for improving access to training, communicationand interaction and that facilitates the adoption of newways of understanding and developing learning.In the final round, experts were asked to use a Likert scale from 1 to 4 (1 the definition does not represent the e-learning concept; 2 the definition hardly represents thee-learning concept; 3 the definition represents the e-learning concept fairly well; 4 thedefinition fully represents the e-learning concept) to express either agreement (3/4) or disagreement (1/2) and to check whether their comments had been successfully incorporatedinto the final inclusive definition. The level of acceptance of the definition turned out to bequite high, with 31 of the 33 participants evaluating it positively (3/4), for an average scoreVol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012152

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabreraof 3.40. Figure 2 shows the breakdown of the scores.Figure 2. Evaluation of the inclusive definition by the participating experts.Although the consensus regarding this definition was quite strong, the participating expertsinsisted on two basic aspects that should be revisited:1.The evolution of the technologies used for learning and teaching should be taken intoconsideration;2.The e-learning concept is also based on certain socioeconomic factors that may notneed to be explicitly included in the definition but should nevertheless be taken intoaccount.Limitations of the StudyAlthough this study was carried out according to the methodology recommended by expertsin educational research, certain limitations should be pointed out.In spite of the fact that the ISI Web of Knowledge database is considered one of the mostprestigious databases in the world, it does not include all the most important publicationson e-learning, probably due to the newness of the concept and an existing policy againstopen access journals, which are increasingly used to distribute research on e-learning (Anderson & McConkey, 2009). Thus, some interesting definitions of the e-learning conceptpublished in other relevant journals may have been overlooked.Additionally, despite the satisfactory number of participating experts, the sample of expertsfrom Asia and Africa was not as large as expected, perhaps due to the strict time constraintsof the research.Conclusions and Further ResearchThe results of this study confirm its main research hypothesis about the difficulty of devising a single, inclusive definition of e-learning that would be accepted by the majority of thescientific community due to the existence of different perspectives on this concept based onauthors’ professional and academic profiles. It was found that the most important reasonsfor this situation are that both the concept of e-learning and society are in a state of conVol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012153

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabrerastant flux and the term is understood from many angles and used with different meanings(Stein, Shephard, & Harris, 2011).After the analysis of the contributions of the participating experts, the research arrived atthe general conclusion that e-learning is part of the new dynamic that characterises educational systems at the start of the 21st century, resulting from the merge of different disciplines, such as computer science, communication technology, and pedagogy, since all thecollected definitions contained characteristics of more than one discipline. Consequently,the concept of e-learning can be expected to continue to evolve for a long time. In today’sworld, learning needs change very quickly and the concept and functions of e-learning mustcontinuously be adapted to these needs.Moreover, the difficulty to include all the main features of the e-learning concept in a singledefinition was identified since not all authors made the same use of the concept and theyconsidered different aspects as fundamental. In this context, and in order to take advantage of all the definitions created, the need to be flexible and generic enough to include themajority of these uses and features is considered compulsory. More analytically, this studyresulted in an inclusive definition that takes into consideration the four main categories inwhich authors conceptualise e-learning: technology, delivery systems, communication, andeducational paradigms.It is true that there is a risk in adopting an inclusive definition of e-learning because thisdefinition connects its different elements and features, which can obstruct the understanding of the concept. But the commonality that unites the concepts is also important, and thiscan be shown only through an inclusive definition which presents the different interrelatedfeatures (Waddington, Badger, & Bull, 2005).As far as the different tendencies of the created definitions of e-learning are concerned, itwas found that authors with a more technological profile geared their definitions towardstechnology or access systems, while authors with an educational profile focused on the neweducational paradigm and communication. The participation of e-learning experts fromdifferent approaches that agreed on this inclusive definition will help enormously to makeeasier its acceptance. On the other hand, the new definition is not threatening any practices.It wants to be a common framework for enhancing theory development and empirical research in a community of scientists (Eagly & Chaiken, 2007) and, in this case, developingfurther research in identifying e-learning application models.Another conclusion derived from the findings of this study is that e-learning goes far beyond technology, even though the concept did not appear until after computers began to beused in education. The literature review and the Delphi method applied to the participatingexperts showed that e-learning also refers to the actual learning that takes place when theseresources are used. In this regard, the experts mainly characterised e-learning as a “way ofteaching and learning” moving towards a “new educational paradigm.”In addition, the framework provided by Jones (1999) is confirmed since this study em-Vol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012154

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and Cabrerabraced a broad and inclusive definition of e-learning in the belief that e-learning is an important – indeed, a key – issue for all academics and professionals who work and do research in the field of education and ICT. As a result, an inclusive definition of this conceptenables multiple points of entry into the discussion of e-learning, from its basic components to its application and models. In other words, a greater number of individuals willsee the relevance of, and their personal connection to, the concept and will thus be able toaccess different points of the discussion and implementation. Since e-learning is often perceived as being too abstract for people to understand, an inclusive definition can be used toprovide the basis, and language, for understanding one’s own connection to the field. It isbelieved that this new definition of the concept could serve as the first step to establishinga new framework of reference for e-learning able to boost research activity by providing acommon starting point.Furthermore, the purpose of the new definition is to consider e-learning as a more comprehensive concept, in which bias due to the four identified categories leads to identifying different models of application but does not extend to the concept itself. The most importantadvantage is to avoid discussions about the extent to which some practice is e-learning oris not. The core question will explain which kind of e-learning model is being applied andwhat its aims and potential benefits are in a particular context. This should help give thee-learning concept more consistency, which will enable working on the establishment of apattern for analysing e-learning models that should result in more arguments in favour ofthe potential achievements of e-learning.Finally, the contribution of an inclusive definition to the evolution of terminology shouldn’tbe ignored. The importance of updating different concepts was underlined many years ago(Allport, 1935) since it helps to reach a convergent point to start a new journey on the concept.As Bates and Poole (2003) suggested, it would also be worth considering that there aredifferent types or forms of e-learning and even different models of applying it. Further research should also focus on both the specific and common characteristics of these e-learning models and on the contexts in which they might work best.Vol 13 No 2Research ArticlesApril 2012155

Building an Inclusive Definition of E-Learning: An Approach to the Conceptual FrameworkSangra, Vlachopoulos, and CabreraReferencesAldrich, C. (2005). Simulations and the future of learning: : An innovative (and perhapsrevolutionary) approach to e-learning. San Francisco: Pf

training and education over the internet to an end-user device” (Lee & Lee, 2006). “E-learning is the delivery of a learning, training or education program by electronic means” (Li, Lau & Dharmendran, 2009). “E-learning is defined as education delivered, or learn