Origins of “eLearning”

On April Fool’s Day of this year, I wrote the following page in the Learnscaping un-book. I meant to be serious.

Coincidence happens. Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646–1716) invented calculus at the same time but independently of one another! (wikipedia)

When Newton and Leibniz first published their results, there was great controversy over which mathematician (and therefore which country) deserved credit. Newton derived his results first, but Leibniz published first. Newton claimed Leibniz stole ideas from his unpublished notes, which Newton had shared with a few members of the Royal Society. This controversy divided English-speaking mathematicians from continental mathematicians for many years, to the detriment of English mathematics. A careful examination of the papers of Leibniz and Newton shows that they arrived at their results independently, with Leibniz starting first with integration and Newton with differentiation.

To be sure, both inventors were standing on the shoulders of mathematicians who had been piecing calculus together since 1800 BCE, but the primary factor in calculus coming about when it did was that the time was right.

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The term eLearning also enjoyed simultaneous discovery. In the late nineties two trends converged to make that timing right.

  • e was in the air. In 1997, Pierre Omidyar had founded eBay; he chose the name because his first choice, Echo Bay, had already been taken. eCommerce, which was mainly about buying things online, was morphing into eBusiness, which involved doing things online. E-mail was becoming email. E-loan announced e-track. People read e-zines and e-books. Before the web, we had EDI (electronic data interchange) and EFT (electronic funds transfer).
  • The meme of learning was replacing training. Training is something trainers push to trainees. Learning is whatever gets past their personal firewalls (AKA skulls) and lodges in the brain. I can learn something; you can’t learn me something. A big part of the sales pitch for early versions of web-supported learning was the elimination of costly trainers. You couldn’t very well call this training.

e + learning. No wonder eLearning sprouted up in many places. I awoke one morning in 1998 with the term in my head. I was not the only one.


Elliott Masie’s bio says he is “acknowledged as the first analyst to use the term e-Learning.” Elliott told me he first heard it at IBM. I have been credited with the first use of eLearning on the web. Six months after CBT Systems announced its transformation into SmartForce, the eLearning company, in late 1999, every training company with a dial-up connection and a web page claimed to have eLearning. The term was misappropriated at warp speed and was soon FUBAR.


Update: I just came upon an article on the web that talks of eLearning in 1997. That pre-dates my earliest eLearning articles. From now on, when asked if I invented the term eLearning, I’m going to point the questioner here and say, no, it wasn’t me, it was that guy.

Frankly, I prefer to be known as the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning than for naming something, in the company of others, more than ten years ago.