The environment of higher education is evolving. Rising costs, shrinking budgets, and an increasing need for distance education (New Media Consortium, 2007) are causing educational institutions to reexamine the way that education is delivered. In response to this changing environment, e-learning is being implemented more and more frequently in higher education, creating new and exciting opportunities for both educational institutions and students.
E-learning, or electronic learning, has been defined a number of different ways in the literature. In general, e-learning is the expression broadly used to describe "instructional content or learning experience delivered or enabled by electronic technologies" (Ong, Lai and Wang, 2004, page 1). Some definitions of e-learning are more restrictive than this one, for example limiting e-learning to content delivery via the Internet (Jones, 2003). The broader definition, which will be used for the purposes of this article, can include the use of the Internet, intranets/extranets, audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, and CD-ROM, not only for content delivery, but also for interaction among participants (Industry Canada, 2001). More recently, this definition can be further expanded to include mobile and wireless learning applications (Kinshuk, Suhonen, Sutinen, and Goh, 2003; Lehner, Nosekabel and Lehmann, 2003).
The e-learning models of higher education today find their roots in conventional distance education. Initially introduced to allow individuals in remote and rural areas to gain access to higher education, distance learning has evolved significantly over time. Technological advancement has been the major inspiration for change, beginning with the integration of radio broadcasting in the 1920's (Huynh, Umesh and Valachich, 2003). More recently, the advent of the Internet has enabled tremendous innovation in the delivery of post secondary education (Gunasekaran, McNeil and Shaul, 2002; Teo and Gay, 2006). As time goes by, more and more people gain access to the Internet, the cost of computer ownership decreases, and overall computer literacy increases (Huynh et al., 2003). These trends provide educational institutions an ideal channel for the delivery of educational content.
Dimensions of E-Learning
The extent of e-learning technology use in course delivery varies widely. The variations in the configuration of e-learning offerings can be described through a number of attributes, as listed in Table 1 below. These attributes can be classified into the dimensions of synchronicity, location, independence, and mode. An e-learning course component can be described by indicating which one of the two attribute values from each dimension is applicable.
E-learning can be synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous (flex-time). Synchronous e-learning includes technology such as video conferencing and electronic white boards (Romiszowski, 2004), requiring students to be present at the time of content delivery. Asynchronous applications include programmed instruction and tutorials that allow students to work through the screens at their own pace and at their own time. Most of the courses available on the Internet are based on this asynchronous model (Greenagel, 2002). Students can be involved in e-learning from distributed locations, as in distance learning, or from the same place, such as using a group support system in a classroom to work on an assignment (Gunasekaran et al., 2002). E-learning applications also differ in the levels of collaboration that they involve. Some courses are entirely independent and individual, while others incorporate some elements of group learning such as discussion forums or chat rooms. The mode of course delivery can be entirely electronic (with or without an instructor) or take a more blended approach integrating electronic and classroom delivery to varying extents. …