e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: A literature review

Publication Details

This e-Learning literature review examined texts across a range of countries, but within a relatively short time frame of the preceding five years. A range of criteria were used to select or eliminate studies for closer review (see Methodology and Methods section). Some key terms are defined for the purpose of this review: outcomes, e-Learning, tools, affordances, Web 2.0.

Author(s): Noeline Wright, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, School of Education, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 2: Key Terms

This section defines a range of terms used regularly in this review: outcomes, e-Learning, tools, affordance, Web 2.0. The terms arise partially from the RFP for the review, and partially from the documented evidence regarding e-Learning itself. The first term addressed is 'outcomes'.


This term is often understood to be a direct synonym for achievement. However, given that the use of ICT tools in a learning context is usually a means to an end rather than the end itself, it makes attributing direct causal links between achievement and e-Learning very difficult. Other complicating factors in classrooms relate to aspects such as students' prior knowledge, their familiarity with the tools, the content being learned, and the pedagogical skills of the teacher. Any of these factors could confound attempts to directly link achievement with the use of e-Learning tools. It is thus sensible to interpret the term 'outcomes' more broadly so that it better reflects the wider contexts of learning in schools, and how this might be done is examined next. Several documents were examined to arrive at workable parameters for this definition. Two important ones were the diverse learners Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) (Alton-Lee, 2003), and the BES relating to teachers' professional development (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007). To begin with, the diverse learners BES (Alton-Lee, 2003) interprets 'achievement' widely, to encompass:

"the essential learning areas, the essential skills, including social and co-operative skills, the commonly held values including the development of respect for others, tolerance (rangimārie), non-racist behaviour, fairness, caring or compassion (aroha), diligence and hospitality or generosity (manaakitanga) (p. 7)."

When the same BES addresses 'outcomes', it suggests that they include attitudes to learning, as well as "behaviours and other outcomes demonstrating… shared values" (p. 7). Specific educational outcomes include:

"cultural identity, well being, whanau spirit and preparation for democratic and global citizenship. Desired outcomes reflect the New Zealand Curriculum Framework and the philosophy of Kura Kaupapa Māori (p. 7)."

The Timperley et al. (2007) BES also indicated a preference for a broad view of outcomes, encompassing the range of the "academic, social, personal or performance" (p. 18). These can be understood to relate to social, affective and cognitive domains of learning, all of which are important for learners to develop while at school. The New Zealand Curriculum's (NZC) Vision statement, Principles, and summary of Effective Pedagogy (see pages 34-35) can be interpreted as indicators of outcomes reflecting social, cultural and economic aspirations linked to educational attainment. The Key Competencies clearly suggest desired skills and abilities that schools should foster in their learners. These link closely to BES interpretations of outcomes.

As well as the Key Competencies, the Principles in the NZC "embody beliefs about what is important and desirable in school curriculum" (p. 9), and outline how "planning, prioritising and review" (p. 9) inform curriculum practices and firmly centre attention on students and their educational needs. These Key Competencies therefore imply strategic and deliberate pedagogical planning on behalf of teachers. In turn, this implies the deliberate incorporation of technological tools to enhance learning opportunities and support meeting educational need. The eight statements in the NZC regarding the Principles include references to teachers having high expectations of students. Other statements refer to cultural diversity, inclusion, learning how to learn (or metacognition), coherence (that is, linking across and between subjects), considerations of the future, and the social goal of linking with the wider community. These latter statements imply a goal of lifelong learning and good citizenship, and link to teachers paying attention to technologies at the centre of students' lives and using them educationally.

To achieve desired outcomes related to lifelong learning, a focus on only academic achievement as a synonym for outcomes could potentially be counter-productive because lifelong learning suggests a preference for openness, seeking out knowledge, testing ideas, experimenting and changing ideas based on new knowledge and evidence. If academic achievement was the single criterion for outcomes, lifelong learning may be stifled, because the practices of school learning would necessarily be fixed only on immediate qualification needs rather than on including the capacity to learn beyond school and develop skills important to learning with others. A wider view implies equipping students with broad metacognitive and self-reflective skills that also include the capacity for critical thinking. These skills and abilities are alluded to in later sections, and have implications for teachers' pedagogical thinking and actions as they use e-Learning tools in classrooms.

An international example regarding outcomes is Singapore's Ministry of Education's documents identifying their 'desired outcomes of education' (Ministry of Education, Singapore, n.d.). These specifically refer to "post-secondary and tertiary students" but imply what must have come before to achieve these outcomes. Singapore's include becoming "morally upright, … culturally rooted yet understanding and respecting differences, … responsible to family, community and country", "… willing to strive, take pride in work, value working with others", "… able to seek, process and apply knowledge",  "… innovative - [having] a spirit of continual improvement, a lifelong habit of learning and an enterprising spirit in undertakings", and "… able to think, reason and deal confidently with the future, [having] courage and conviction in facing adversity". These long-term outcomes go beyond a narrow focus on passing exams or gaining qualifications, focusing instead on the kinds of aspirations that resonate with the Values and Principles of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Thus, when these views about the potential meanings for outcomes are considered together, encompassing a broader view beyond causal links to academic achievement is necessary. This literature review therefore focuses on texts that link to student and teacher outcomes in the social, affective and cognitive domains. These outcomes can include items such as:

Student outcomes

  • Learning how to learn/metacognition
  • Engagement/positive attitudes to learning
  • Concentration on, and completion of tasks
  • Taking learning outside the classroom
  • Developing social skills – discussion, co-operation, task completion, inclusion, sensitivity to difference and diversity, building effective relationships
  • Articulating opinions on and about their learning
  • Improving basic skills of literacy and numeracy leading to improved products of learning such as written reports, visual or oral presentations
  • Improving quantitatively in common tests.

Teacher outcomes

  • Improved confidence with, and knowledge about, e-Learning practices and tools
  • Improved understanding and consistent use of appropriate pedagogies that support learning
  • Improved relationships with students including an appreciation of their prior knowledge, diverse backgrounds, and capacity to learn
  • Seeking regular feedback from students about their learning in order to improve practices and relationships
  • Greater satisfaction and engagement in designing and implementing effective pedagogical practices
  • Developing an inquiry approach focused on improving students' learning outcomes which link to both subject specific outcomes, and Key Competencies.

These outcomes interpret factors in the social, affective and cognitive domains for both teachers and students. In turn, they map onto qualities such as collaboration, motivation, perseverance and higher order thinking. Pedagogy and what is perceived to be effective learning is also implicated. As Dillenbourg (2008) cautioned, Internet or mobile technologies coupled with education do not necessarily predict learning outcomes. Instead, the ways that teachers use these affordances have a strong link to this potential. Therefore, given that there are difficulties in making direct causal links between e-Learning improved academic achievement outcomes for students, it is important to interpret 'outcomes' widely as indicated above.


This term is explained in the New Zealand Ministry of Education's e-Learning action plan as "Learning and teaching that is facilitated by or supported through the smart use of information and communication technologies" (Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 2). These information and communication technologies (ICTs) include tools such as interactive whiteboards (IWBs), handheld devices like cell phones, digital cameras or voice recorders, or PDAs (personal digital assistants), as well as computers and specific software applications. For educational purposes, the most important word in ICT is 'communication' – the ability to receive, create and transmit information and/or new knowledge using a mediating technological tool of some kind. As Earl and Forbes (2008) argued, the word 'communication' "emphasises the purpose behind using a wide range of technologies in educational contexts – that is, the central focus should be…. on how [these technologies] may be used to enable connections between people" (p. 195). These connections also imply interactions. 'Smart use', as used above, is potentially a key part of the definition, for it implies practices that are strategic, nimble, just-in-time, and pedagogically appropriate.

Digital Horizons (Ministry of Education, 2002), an earlier document, defined e-Learning in much more detail as:

"flexible learning using ICT resources, tools, and applications, and focusing on interactions among teachers, learners, and the online environment. e-Learning usually refers to structured and managed learning experiences, and may involve the use of the internet, CD-roms, software, other media, and telecommunications (p. 5)."

This definition centres attention on 'interactions' and the role of the teacher in providing 'structured and managed learning experiences'. The term 'interactions' recognises the importance of communication and relationships as a feature of the learning and the pedagogy. The 2006 definition streamlines the one used in Digital Horizons, subsuming the tools as integral and understood components of ICT: interaction and communication go together with the use of digital tools. Other definitions are also valuable to examine. For example, in their Glossary of Library and Internet Terms, the University of South Dakota defines e-Learning as:

"Any technologically mediated learning using computers whether from a distance or in face to face classroom settings (computer assisted learning) (University of South Dakota, n.d.),"

while the Australian Flexible Learning Framework describes e-Learning as a component of flexible learning, involving:

"the application of electronic media in the delivery of flexible vocational education and training programs. It can include the use of web, CD-ROM or computer-based learning resources in the classroom, workplace or home, as well as online access to course activities such as group discussions and online assessment activities." (FLAG Secretariat, 2003)

Both of the above definitions refer to the mediating role of electronic media, particularly a computer, and the flexibility of place and time in engaging in the learning. Neither mentions tools and media such as podcasts or mobile phones; however, this may simply reflect the age of the definition. The rapid development of mobile technologies in the past five years as everyday tools, and therefore potential learning tools, was not predicted in these definitions.

The Canadian Council on Learning's recent report (Abrami et al., 2008) decided on a definition from 2002: that e-Learning is "the development of knowledge and skills through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly to support interactions for learning – interactions with content, with learning activities and tools, and with other people" (p. 30). This definition focuses on the idea of 'interaction' as a key feature of e-Learning, and is close to acknowledging the key role pedagogy plays in effective learning.

Wan, Wang & Haggerty (2008) suggest that e-Learning is:

"a virtual learning environment in which a learner's interactions with materials, peers and/or instructors are mediated through information and communication technologies. It is different from the traditional environment because ICT are used as tools to support the learning process. Taking advantage of network infrastructures, learning can occur anywhere using many types of resources." (p. 513)

This definition focuses on the idea of a 'virtual learning environment'. Wan et al. also suggest the relevance of mobile technologies to e-Learning, and describe a potential learning environment that eschews the need for traditional physical classroom spaces. While this resonates with trends identified in the latest Horizon Report, it is unlikely that schools will cease to exist, that classrooms will disappear, or that teachers will be redundant. Instead, their relationships to learners and how learning happens will evolve. There is also a body of literature suggesting that teachers are still crucial to 21st century learners, and this will be considered later in the review.

Some concepts are, however, implied in all of the above definitions. Interaction is one of these, referred to also as discussion. Another is the concept of mediation - that the e-Learning tools are the means by which the interactions can take place. Connectedness is also implied, and this links to the idea of social networking, or communication with others. This can be understood as a community of practice/learning framework that also resonates with Lave and Wenger's explanations of situated learning (1991). e-Learning is thus related to a confluence of ICT, education, and knowledge. A diagrammatic way of viewing this confluence follows:

Figure 1: Merging language and fields of study

Image of Figure 1: Merging language and fields of study.
Note: (What is Electronic Learning? n.d. p. 3)

For the purposes of this review, the New Zealand Ministry of Education's most recent definition as outlined at the start of this section applies here, since it links together the tools, learning opportunities, the scope and design of such practices (Ministry of Education, 2006).


The word 'tools' should also be examined in this review's context. Its relationship to education was articulated well by Sutherland (2004), who pointed out that tools are used regularly in classrooms as a matter of course. This should be no surprise, since "all human activity is mediated by tools" (2004, p. 6), which can be understood to include materials, symbols and objects. Cultural artefacts are tools, as is language. More prosaic tools include pens, books and paper, while digital tools include specific software programs, the Internet, plus specific hardware such as cell phones or computers. People can also operate as tools because they can help others complete a task or develop new knowledge, and this links to the importance of teachers as facilitators of knowledge creation in classrooms. Thus, the understanding that teachers use tools is not new. However, their use of digital tools has much shorter history for those used to books, pens and other 20th century tools for learning; overhead projectors and cassette tapes were new tools for educational use less than twenty years ago. Sutherland asserts that tools "qualitatively change the flow and structure of an activity…[and] in this sense tools both enhance and constrain an activity" (p. 6). Digital tools, like other kinds, can be both helpful and obstructive in learning contexts. 'Tools' is a term used regularly in this review, and is intended to be understood as referring to the kinds of digital uses and objects outlined in this section.


The next word important to examine is 'affordance' because it is regularly used in relation to ICT (Johna & Sutherland, 2005). This term, as used in psychology, refers to elements that allow people to perform actions: for example, an object or specific environment that supports possible and actual actions. In relation to ICT/e-Learning contexts, it has shifted in meaning to refer to suggested or intuitive uses, and may refer to abstractions rather than objects per se. For example, a web page deemed to have good affordances, is one that users can navigate easily and quickly discover what symbols/icons/graphics or text can do that helps complete a task or make progress. In other words, its design features help a user know what to do; that its visual layout and content leads users to predict certain actions and consequences (Abrami et al., 2008). This is particularly evident in the ways that mobile devices are beginning to be used educationally, and can be seen in the explosion of Apps (Applications) for the iPod Touch and iPhones, compared with other mobile devices such as mobiles called smartphones, which appear to require much more prior knowledge and support to manipulate successfully.

Conole and Dyke (2004) reinforce the idea of potential when linking affordance with e-Learning. They suggest that people can respond creatively to technologies and adapt them in ways that original designers had not foreseen. For example, Johna and Sutherland's (2005) examination of secondary schools' uses of ICT referred to the pedagogical affordances of ICT and what it suggests for the future. In the UK for instance, the policy framework of personalised learning expects an increasing use of digital technologies in schools to support it (Underwood & Banyard, 2008), and is associated with assumptions about digital technology affordances in education. On the other hand, Luehmann's (2008) discussion about the affordances of blogging to support teachers' building of the attitudes, skills and understandings that lead to improved student learning, shows that the potential uses are not yet exhausted for either teachers or learners. These tools, and other such online communities of practice, help teachers focus on reflection and wondering, thus providing a means by which they are able to 'see' themselves as teachers differently. This may also be helped by the kinds of reactions they get from those who comment on their postings.

Affordances can be linked to actions such as "mashing and modding" (Grenfell, 2007). These refer to the processed of modifying (modding) and adding (mashing) to existing tools, affordances and programs, and describe what already happens with Web 2.0 tools. In other words, users take over an existing product and make it their own, thus creating new ones or new versions of what has gone before, sometimes particularising and improving them.

In summary, 'affordance' is a term that refers more to the level of intuitive ease with which users can manipulate or navigate e-Learning tools without needing either much tool-specific prior knowledge or too many existing e-Learning skills to do so.

Web 2.0

This term refers to the kinds of web affordances which promote interaction, social networking (that is, the ability to connect digitally to anyone, anywhere both synchronously and asynchronously), mashing and modding. Web 2.0 describes the kinds of programs which allow users to create content rather than remain as passive recipients of WWW site information. With Web 2.0 affordances, people may now both publish and create their own content using a range of media, and allow others to provide feedback on it, particularly in social networking spaces. It is quite common for individuals to post images and movies on various sites for the express purpose of garnering feedback. Bebo, Facebook, Podcasts, and YouTube are examples of such sites.

Web 2.0's flexibility doesn't stop there. People can also collaborate on documents and software. Blogs, Wikis, and GoogleDocs are now common examples of these affordances, and Wikipedia is probably the most famous. CreativeCommons is an Open Source (non proprietary) example of an international network designed to share knowledge and skills, and communicate these widely as a public good. These kinds of tools may be useful to harness educationally. It is now time to explain the methods used to examine texts for this review.