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A framework for open, flexible and distributed e-learning

By Badrul H. Khan / February 2003

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To stay viable in this global competitive market, providers of education and training must develop efficient and effective learning systems to meet the society's needs. Learners expect on-demand, anytime/anywhere high-quality instruction with good support services.

What does it take to provide the best and most meaningful open, flexible, and distributed learning environments for learners worldwide? With this question in mind, since 1997 I have been communicating with learners, instructors, trainers, administrators, and technical and other support services staff involved in e-learning in both academic (k12 and higher education) and corporate settings from all over the world. I reviewed literature on e-learning and researched critical e-learning issues discussed in professional discussion forums, and designed and taught online courses. Through these activities, I have learned that numerous factors help to create a meaningful learning environment, and many of these factors are systemically interrelated and interdependent. A systemic understanding of these factors can help designers create meaningful e-learning environments. I clustered these factors into eight dimensions to create "A Framework for E-Learning": institutional, pedagogical, technological, interface design, evaluation, management, resource support, and ethical.

  1. The institutional dimension is concerned with issues of administrative affairs (e.g., needs assessment, readiness assessment, organization and change, budgeting and return-on-investment, partnerships with other institutions, marketing and recruitment, admissions, financial aid, registration and payment, graduation, and alumni affairs), academic affairs (e.g., accreditation, policy, instructional quality, faculty and staff support, workload, class size and compensation, intellectual property rights, etc.) and student services (e.g., pre-enrollment services, orientation, advising, counseling, learning skills development, services for students with disabilities, library support, bookstore, tutorial services, mediation and conflict resolution, social support network, students newsletter, etc.
  2. The pedagogical dimension of e-learning refers to teaching and learning. This dimension addresses issues concerning content analysis, audience analysis, goal analysis, medium analysis, design approach, organization, and instructional methods and strategies. Various e-learning methods and strategies include: presentation, demonstration, drill and practice, tutorials, games, story telling, simulations, role-playing, discussion, interaction, modeling, facilitation, collaboration, debate, field trips, apprenticeship, case studies, generative development and motivation.
  3. The technological dimension of the framework examines issues of technology infrastructure in e-learning environments. This includes infrastructure planning (e.g., technology plan, standards, metadata, learning objects, etc.), hardware and software (e.g., LMS, LCMS, etc.).
  4. The interface design refers to the overall look and feel of e-learning programs. Interface design dimension encompasses page and site design, content design, navigation, usability testing and accessibility.
  5. The evaluation for e-learning includes both assessment of learners and evaluation of the instruction and learning environment.
  6. The management of e-learning refers to the maintenance of learning environment and distribution of information.
  7. The resource support dimension of the framework examines the online support (e.g., instructional/counseling support, technical support, career counseling services, other online support services) and resources (i.e., both online and offline) required to foster meaningful learning environments.
  8. The ethical considerations of e-learning relate to social and political influence, cultural diversity, bias, geographical diversity, learner diversity, information accessibility, etiquette, and the legal issues (e.g., policy and guidelines, privacy, plagiarism, copyright, etc.).

The purpose of this framework is to help designers to think through every aspect of what they are doing during various steps of the e-learning design process. As the scope of e-learning design expands, design projects change from one-person operations to complex team efforts. The e-learning framework can be used to ensure that no important factor is omitted from the design of e-learning, whatever its scope or complexity.

Each dimension has several sub-dimensions, each consisting of issues focused on a specific aspect of an e-learning environment. The items or issues encompassing each dimension of the e-learning framework are presented as questions that course designers can ask themselves when planning or designing e-learning. The purpose of the many numerous questions/concerns within each dimension of the framework is to help designers think through their projects in depth.

Within this article, I would like to discuss a few interface design and ethical issues that might be of interest to e-learning designers:

  • To improve visual communication, is the course sensitive to the use of navigational icons or images? This is an example of the interface design and ethical consideration issue for the e-learning environment. In Bangladesh, we use the thumbs-up sign to challenge people, but to other cultures, that means you did well. A pointing hand icon to indicate direction would violate a cultural taboo in certain African cultures because it represents a dismembered body part (this is also true for a pointing finger that indicates a hyperlink). A right arrow for the next page may mean the previous page for Arabic and Hebrew language speakers as they read from left to right.
  • Is the course sensitive to students from different time-zones (e.g., are synchronous communications such as chat discussions scheduled at reasonable times for all time zones represented)? This is an example of a question that e-learning designers can ask in the geographical diversity section of the ethical dimension. As we know, scheduled chat discussions may not work for learners coming from different time zones. In the U.S., there are the six time zones. Therefore, all e-learning courses should be sensitive to diversity in geographical time zones (i.e., all courses where students can reasonably be expected to live in different time zones).
  • When a course contains links to sites located in different countries with different cultures (where navigation or expression icons may differ from learners' native culture), are there any cues on how to adjust to unfamiliar navigation or a different instructional environment? This is an example of a question that e-learning designers can ask in the navigation section of the interface design dimension.
  • Do users find answers to the most frequently asked questions on the course site within a reasonable amount of time? This is an example of a question that e-learning designers can ask in the usability testing section of the interface design dimension. Saving time is definitely an element of user satisfaction.
  • Is the course sensitive about the content authors' biases? This is an example of a question that e-learning designers can ask in the bias section of the ethical dimension. Author's bias based on his or her position on controversial issues should be examined. An inclination toward a particular point of view can cause bias in e-learning. Please note that sometimes it may be the case where an author is unaware of a bias. Learners should be informed about biases. Tom Abeles noted on the DEOS listserv, "A history of Nepal might look very different if taught by a Pakistani, an Indian or faculty from China."

One might wonder: Are all sub-dimensions within the eight dimensions necessary for e-learning? One might also wonder: There's a lot of questions here! Which ones do I need to address? Again, it depends on the scope of an e-learning initiative. To initiate an e-learning degree program, for example, it is critical to start with the institutional dimension of the e-learning framework and also investigate all critical issues relevant to your specific projects in other dimensions. In this case, a comprehensive readiness assessment (refer to readiness assessment section of the institutional dimension) should be conducted. However, to create an e-learning lesson, some institutional sub-dimensions (such as admissions, financial aid, and others) may not be relevant.

There are a myriad of critical issues encompassing the eight dimensions of the framework that need to be explored. My research will continue to identify and discuss various critical factors related to e-learning.

One may find that designing open, flexible, and distributed e-learning systems for globally diverse learners is challenging; however, as more and more institutions offer e-learning to learners worldwide, designers will become more knowledgeable about what works and what does not work. We should try our best to accommodate the needs of diverse learners by asking as many critical questions as possible along the eight dimensions of the framework. The number and types of questions may vary based on each unique e-learning system. By exploring the more critical e-learning issues within the eight dimensions of the framework, we can create more meaningful and supportive learning environments for learners. Given our specific e-learning contexts, we may not be able to address all the critical issues within the eight dimensions of the framework. However, we should find ways to address them with the best possible means that we can afford and remember that it is critical to ask as many questions as possible during the planning period of e-learning design.

I hope that by presenting various dimensions of the framework, I have provided a sketch of what it takes to create meaningful e-learning environments. I believe various issues within the eight dimensions of the framework can provide guidance in the planning, design, development, delivery, evaluation and implementation of e-learning environments. Various sub-dimensions discussed within the eight dimensions of the framework are by no means complete. I welcome comments and suggestions for improvement (


  • Fri, 15 Feb 2013
    Post by Denise Doig

    Tali thank you for the comment. Please contact us directly at [email protected]

  • Sat, 10 Nov 2012
    Post by T.ali

    can we use this framework to evaluate e learning? if not what your suggestion framework to evaluate e-learning ?

    thanks a lot