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With the ever increasing reliance on IT in education, how courseware and instructional mediums are designed is vital if technology in education is to be used and implemented successfully. The aim of this issue of CDTL Brief is to examine some of the issues surrounding Instructional Systems Design.

May 2002, Vol. 5 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Towards a Blended Design for e-Learning
Associate Professor Chen Ai Yen &
Associate Professor Tan Oon Seng
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University

The Challenge

With the proliferation and increasing use of Information Communication Technology (ICT), how people communicate and access information has improved in efficiency and efficacy. While people may love to surf the Web, enjoy email and readily employ other modes of ICT, it is unclear if they would want to embark on more formal learning on the Web, which is an aspect of e-Learning.

What is e-Learning? e-Learning is not just about learning on the Web. Elliott Masie, President of the Masie Center, believes that "e-Learning should change the experience of learning. It should extend learning choices and it should expand training options beyond the limitations of the classroom" (Rosenberg, 2001: 37—38).

Because e-Learning is so close to us, we cannot ignore it. But are we aware of its utility? Two years or so ago, the e-Learning business was one of the gold rushes of the fever with many predictions on the high return-on-investment of e-Learning. To date, "nearly all the e-learning companies have yet to earn a profit" (Welber, January 2002). Now some providers are asking themselves:

  • What really are the needs of potential e-Learning clients?
  • After all the piloting and experimentation, is there now a trustworthy model of e-Learning?
  • Is there really an emerging generation of e-Learners?
  • Can technology re-define needs and the ways people learn?
  • Are web learners developing sustainable deep learning and how do they do so?

Whilst technologies continue to proliferate and standards and benchmarks continue to evolve, there unfortunately seems to be a lack of clarity about the why, what and how of e-Learning.

The Response

To establish the rationale behind e-Learning we argue that as teachers, the anchor should be our teaching vision, mission and beliefs embedded in our core knowledge, expertise and activities. The face-to-face, teacher-students interaction that takes place when students learn the complexities and heuristics of thinking, problem-solving and applications unique to the domain of our professional field or ‘expertise’ cannot be easily replaced by current methods of e-Learning. Perhaps artificial intelligence and more sophisticated multimedia delivery and interaction will assist in more domains of metacognition in learning in the future. But it is probably a myth that most people are willing to sit in front of a computer or a formal programme like educational videos or video recordings of lectures. One wonders how many distance learning students, when given a set of 20 lectures on video, faithfully go through each of them.

Besides offering content, many online providers are struggling with designs of interactivity. Many universities and online companies have invested heavily in attempts to use the right timely technology and instructional design. For instance on 4 April 2001, the American Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced its OCW (OpenCourseWare) and promised to put a comprehensive range of its professors’ course materials for free access to the world. At the moment, there is still nothing on the MIT website (; but it is promised that some 100 or so courses will be uploaded by September 2002.

In the MIT approach, e-Learning is solely about making content available and interaction is not an issue. MIT has made clear that it will not make its courses generally available for interaction, as the OCW is not intended to take the place of an MIT education. For MIT, a student’s education occurs through face-to-face interaction with the professors, rather than through sophisticated platforms: what happens on campus is primarily an access to a variety of course content and a greater awareness and sharing of the scope of each professor’s knowledge, expertise and inspirational personal qualities.

While we can admire MIT’s generosity in sharing its course contents, what we can learn from the MIT approach is that we should not stress on the sophistication of human-machine interaction. Instead, we should strive for a correct blend of purposes, passion, content and methods using technology to achieve and enhance what we teachers and academics have and are good at.

Beyond Standards, Templates & Technology:
The ‘Right’ Blending & Focus in e-Learning

If e-Learning is not just about accessing static content or the capacity for interaction, what should be the focus? What should be the e-Learning standards? Is there a model or some kind of good template for instructional design? Given that learners and teachers in the new millennium face some urgent learning problems [i.e. (1) too much content to be covered in too limited time, (2) too many learners with diverse needs and interests, (3) too many problems and issues demanding solutions], we would like to argue that a problem-focused approach, a less-explored paradigm, is more suitable than giving priority attention to standards, templates and technology.

Consider the MIT approach where the core content knowledge is provided on the Internet, which in some ways address the first two learning problems mentioned above. Problem (2) cannot be solely addressed by technology. Face-to-face teaching and interactions on campus where learners see at first hand how their teacher-experts facilitate learning and cognition will still have to be blended with IT usage.

In this blend of learning, we believe that all learning begins with a presentation of a real-world problem or scenario. As Tan, et al. (2000) has observed, "the search for educational methodologies that emphasise real world challenges, higher order thinking skills, multi-disciplinary learning, independent learning, e-learning, information and knowledge management and collaborative skills appear to have a confluence in problem-based learning" (p. xi). Consequently to enhance a combination of face-to-face teaching and IT usage, problem-based learning approaches should be incorporated.

The reasons for this stand are as follows: Although technology can augment the reality of the ‘problem’ presentation, it is unable to provide the solution. Although technology can increase the learners’ information about the world with its ease of accessibility and interaction, it cannot encourage and inspire how to solve messy real-life problems that professionals encounter in their different fields and daily life. At the most, technology may trigger the need to learn, communicate and collaborate. Because technology alone does not automatically lead to successful learning, it is necessary to look for more holistic teaching methodologies that optimise good usage of technology.

Educators have always appreciated the value of using problems to stimulate learning and enhance the quality of thinking. But deciding when to pose a problem and what should be the scope of the problem has in the past been limited by the learner’s availability of, and accessibility to, information.

In contrast, the IT revolution has brought about two new changes. First, the roles of educators have been re-defined: teachers have now become coaches, facilitators and designers of learning and seek to empower students to become more independent learners who can make better use of the accessibility and wealth of knowledge and information (although students do not always like this aim and prefer to be spoon-fed).

Second, the advent of online learning has brought about new paradigms and approaches in the presentation of problems and the learning of problem-enquiry and problem-solving processes. Teaching in this new paradigm requires a blending of human-to-human facilitation and human-machine interaction; in addition, problems are used as triggers to enhance knowledge sharing and enterprise. Hence when teachers ask questions, these questions should focus on the key learning problems to be solved. When designing and developing courses with essential content to be learnt, questions that are posed to students should be linked to basic instructional design elements (e.g. learning goals, objectives, content, participants’ needs, instructional and learning methods and procedures, resources and technologies, evaluation and feedback).

e-Learning should not be just about changing the mode of delivery and the retrieval of content for information focusing on a single discipline. By incorporating problem-based learning approaches into e-Learning, not only do we gain a fresh perspective to e-Learning, but we can now see clearly that the problem-focused e-Learning approach is about:

  • changing the paradigm of learning;
  • actively defining the scope and goals of learning;
  • the learning of heuristics;
  • the learning of thinking processes;
  • activating prior knowledge;
  • being inevitably engaged in the learning process;
  • optimising flexibility;
  • having a multi-disciplinary approach;
  • encouraging divergence; and
  • constructing solutions to unstructured, real-world problems.

Hope & Expectation of Problem-focused e-Learning

We hope our problem-focused e-Learning idea provides a different angle of contemplation for those intending to use e-Learning. Apart from learning to be facilitators of the learning process, we need a new paradigm to see ourselves confronting and solving problems as well as being designers of the learning environment. To decide how much of the problem-focused approach should be face-to-face and how much online, it is thus important to consider the following three points:

  • the how of e-Learning is deriving the right blend based on your own belief, mission and core competence;
  • the what of e-Learning is being problem-focused rather than concentrating on content, interactivity and standards; and
  • the why of e-Learning is about technology enhancing our access to information and expertise that helps us solve messy real-life problems.


Rosenberg, Marc J. (2001). E-Learning-Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 37—38.

Tan, O.S.; Little, P.; Hee, S.Y. & Conway, J. (2000) Problem-based learning: Educational innovation across disciplines. Singapore: Temasek Centre for Problem-based Learning.

Welber, Michael. (January 2002). ‘Where We’ve Been & Where We’re Going: A Look at the Future of e-learning’. (Accessed: 26 February 2002).

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Inside this issue
e-Learning at Singapore Polytechnic: From Concept to Reality
Considerations for Web-Based Learning Design
Creating a Meaningful Learning Environment Using ICT
Understanding Strategies of Authoring Computer Courseware
Towards a Blended Design for e-Learning