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A to Z Terms for Education in the Digital Age

A to Z Terms for Education in the Digital Age

Posted on: March 13, 2020

Excerpted and adapted from the Key Concepts chapter from Digital Learning: The Key Concepts by Frank Rennie and Keith Smyth. For more terms on the evolving landscape of eLearning—including Blended Learning, Heutagogy, Open Access, and more—follow this link to download the full text.

With the rising popularity of digital products and the understanding of the positive effect they have on education, today’s classroom environment is changing.

From Asynchronous Learning to XML and everything in between, there are a lot of eLearning terms to familiarize yourself with. Many terms can feel like jargon but are indeed essential knowledge when it comes to understanding this evolving landscape of eLearning.

That’s why we’ve compiled this brief eLearning glossary, full of helpful terms that you are sure to see often and those that might be infrequent but important. Be sure to bookmark it and don’t forget to share with your colleagues. Here is a quick A to Z guide on some of the terms incremental to eLearning and education in the digital age:


The term is used to describe the use of the internet for access to a learning environment at times and locations to suit the user. It is most commonly applied to online discussion groups in which messages from students and from tutoring build up over an extended period. The primary advantage is flexibility in being able to fit learning around other commitments, but a major educational outcome is the time for reflection between postings and the opportunity to refine messages before posting. It has been likened to an extended seminar in which students learn from each other with the guidance of the tutor. Asynchronous learning can be contrasted with interactivity that is synchronous.


In relation to digital education, ‘bite-sized learning’ is a term that is increasingly used to refer to small, focused episodes of learning activity supported by digital online educational content (for example, audio or video material, podcasts, inter-activities) or engagement in time-limited online tasks. One common example of this is the use of language learning apps to support the learning of a few new words or a common phrase each day. Bite-sized learning can also be used in formal educational contexts; for example, a student watching a short video or animation of a practical activity, lab procedure, or other specific task before then carrying out that task. Bite-sized online learning, sometimes referred to as micro-learning, has also been extended into the area of continued professional development (CPD) for practitioners as a means for new knowledge and skills to be acquired flexibly around other daily commitments. Many universities, for example, now offer bite-sized online CPD opportunities through which lecturers can devote a short amount of time each day, or at a few points over a week, to learn how to use particular digital technologies or digitally enabled approaches that they can then use to support their own students.


COOCs are open courses for adult learners, delivered via the COOCs open online environment and based on a widening access and open education ethos in which the COOCs platform ‘provides a place where anyone can teach and learn anything for free’ (Shukie, 2015). Founded by Peter Shukie, COOCs is also a non-profit community-focused organization with participation in the activities of COOCs guided by the COOCs community code. As a model and approach to open online education that is focused on widening accessibility to adult education for those who may not necessarily have had prior tertiary educational experiences, COOCs has attracted considerable interest in the education sector.


The term ‘digital university’ has become an increasingly common one in educational research and literature in recent years, although it is used in various ways that place different emphases on the role of digital technologies and practices in higher education. Within the literature to date, some uses of the term relate primarily to the concept of the digital university with reference to increased technological efficiencies in university processes and procedures, including scalability of courses, increased ‘market share’ of the higher education sector and competitive advantage of universities. Other uses of the term ‘digital university’ are to be found in the context of universities as a place for the development of critical digital literacies and capabilities, and ‘transformational’ developments of educational practice and the curriculum. The term, and the concept, remain diffuse and indeterminate at the time of writing.


This is a portmanteau word, bringing together ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’. It specifically refers to programs or activities that use forms of mass entertainment to introduce opportunities for public education in a non-formal manner. Although its use has a relatively long history on radio (e.g. The Archers) and on television (e.g. Blue Peter and Sesame Street), each of which have been successfully used to incorporate educational messages and activities for the mass audience, there has been a very slow uptake in formal higher education.


This refers to an exchange of intemperate, hostile or abusive messages via electronic media, such as discussion boards, by instant messaging or by group email. The immediacy of these media, together with the tendency for them to be text-based and relatively short, has given rise to a tendency for users to respond quickly to previous messages. In some cases, the brevity of the response, coupled with the lack of detailed ways to convey emotion, can produce seemingly strong feelings which can escalate quickly into heated online exchanges, or flame wars. New elearners, especially, are encouraged to pause for thought before replying to provocative messages, and more frequent users often resort to emoticons to give the suggestion of their humor in the context of the message. Flaming is the online equivalent to an explosive outburst in a face-to-face (f2f) meeting, and while this may sometimes provoke a useful exchange of radically different opinions, its continued use is not to be recommended or tolerated by the responsible moderator.


Gamification within educational activities will often involve means for individuals to gauge their progress against their peers, in addition to collaborative learning opportunities involving problem-solving, immediate feedback, and a designed progression in level of challenge, difficulty or complexity.

Increased motivation, engagement, and enjoyment within educational tasks and activities are often associated with gamified elements and approaches. Poor applications of gamification principles in learning and learning design may result in ‘trivializing’ educational tasks and activities, and many leading proponents of gamification in learning and digital education provide guidance on how to avoid this.


A hashtag is a word or phrase (without spaces) prefixed with the # symbol and used on social networking sites, including Twitter, to allow users to easily identify messages and exchanges that relate to the same topic or event. For example, searching Twitter using the hashtag #blendedlearning would allow the user to see all the publicly posted Tweets from users that have featured that particular hashtag to post on the topic of blended learning. Similarly, for an event, searching Twitter using the hashtag #Olympics2018 would bring up a listing of all publicly visible Tweets relating to the 2018 Olympic Games. Note that while some hashtags are created using capital letters, hashtags are not case sensitive.


Used as a common abbreviation for ‘information and communications technology’, this is a very broad descriptive term for any hardware or software, or even any activity, that is related to the use of computers for the generation, storage, transmission and retrieval of information in an electronic format. Early forms of the concept often referred simply to ‘information technology’ (IT) but the additional component of rapid digital transfer of information between computers in a network, and using computers to communicate by email, or videoconferencing on the desktop, over the internet, has substantially enlarged the generic use of the term.

A significant distinction to emerge in recent years is that, as software and the managed learning environment for elearning has become more sophisticated and ‘user friendly’, learners no longer need to be highly skilled computer programmers in order to use elearning tools and benefit from the educational experience.


A particular programming language that is designed to be cross platform, i.e. it is compatible to run on a variety of computer operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows or Apple MacIntosh. It is currently particularly favored for its use in constructing certain features of webpages (such as animations or multimedia) as programmers are able to write free-standing applications. These applications are then decoded and run by the machine that accesses the website, rather than the host server.


The ‘killer application’ has come to mean the ‘next big thing’ that will achieve a breakthrough to a new level of ICT use. It is derived from the observation that an innovative piece of software frequently provides the extra marketing incentive that encourages a mass of the public to purchase the supporting hardware (e.g. a particular brand of computer or, in gamification, a particular brand of handset or control consul). The search for the next killer app has become the next ‘best thing’ for ICT companies, as widespread public adoption of a new application has frequently led to the generation of considerable wealth and prestige.


‘Learning management system’ is synonymous with ‘MLE’ (managed learning environment) and sometimes also with VLE (virtual learning environment). ‘LMS’ is the term favored in the US and is often used for provision of corporate training. Whatever the term, the software provides a means of administering elearning by providing an access system as well as a tracking system for student progress. Of course, facilities for communication, assessment and content display are also part of the platform.


A MOOC is an open online course, delivered through the web and associated technologies, that is free to enroll on and which is designed to accommodate very large numbers of geographically dispersed online learners. MOOCs typically support learning through providing access to course materials (including, for example, new or repurposed recorded lectures, videos and study guides) alongside opportunities for participants to learn through online dialogue and discussion with each other, and to complete specific individual or collaborative tasks and activities.

The first MOOC is widely acknowledged to have been the ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ open online course first offered in 2008, and the subsequent growth of MOOCs through the several thousand that have been offered worldwide since then has seen the MOOC ethos and basic model become a central part of the burgeoning open education movement. Diversification in the MOOC model has led to a general distinction  between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. The former are based on the principles of connectivism, and are primarily about connected learning and knowledge building. The latter, xMOOCs, tend to have a more structured syllabus. They are more instructor- than participant-focused, and there is usually a specific purpose for completing the course (e.g. to evidence successful learning of the syllabus, and/or to enable potential progression into a formal program of study).


A common term for ‘network etiquette’ or the ‘rules of engagement’ for online practitioners. Due to the brief and sometimes terse nature of email and messages to discussion boards or other computer conferencing applications, it is very easy to offend other users unintentionally. On some occasions giving offense may lead to flaming while more generally it will simply discourage interaction between learners and a lessening of trust in the members of online communities. Netiquette is a response aimed at minimizing these negative aspects by providing at the outset a clear set of guidelines on how online users should show consideration for each other. Simple indications of the tone of the message, or the intention of the user, can be given by the incorporation of emoticons in the text to suggest humor, irony, etc. or by indicating emphasis by SHOUTING in capitals to stress KEY words.


This refers to software that has a freely available source code (the programming language) which is available to the public at no cost. The software should be distributed freely and include all relevant documentation. Programmers are able to rewrite and improve on the software but are normally expected to return their improvements into the public domain at no charge. Some educational establishments have moved towards using open source software as the platform to operate their virtual learning environment (VLE) (or more correctly, managed learning environment – MLE) on the grounds that they can avoid paying commercial license fees to the suppliers and are better able to customize the MLE to their specific requirements. On the other hand, not having a supplier to maintain the MLE means that the institution itself must incur the costs of running and developing their platform. In some cases, although the software itself is distributed at no cost, some companies offer commercial services to install and maintain the system on behalf of an institution. Advantages of using open source materials include the ability to select and change the appearance and functionality of the MLE and the ability to have a major influence on the future design of the system. This may be a major consideration, for example, when customizing the VLE or MLE to allow for working in a minority language. A well-known example of an open source VLE is Moodle.


There are various definitions of the term ‘personal learning environment’ (PLE), reflecting different views of what a PLE actually constitutes. Within the context of digital education, a personal learning environment is a combination of social media-enabled systems, applications, and services which help learners to take control of their learning by aggregating, manipulating, and creating digital contents and learning artifacts, and sharing them with others.


Originally standing for ‘quick response code’, QR marks are a form of two-dimensional barcode containing data which can be read optically to supply additional information such as CVs, documents and links to a webpage. They are often used on posters, etc., where space is limited.


Reusing, reworking, and remixing are sometimes referred to as the ‘three R’s’ of working with open education resources, although guidelines also exist relating to the reusing, reworking and remixing of copyrighted material for educational purposes.

In short, in relation to OER, reusing is the reuse of an openly licensed education resource in original form and  format, although not necessarily for the same educational context, purpose or activity for which it was originally designed. Reworking involves adapting an existing OER, through removing or adding content and elements, to better contextualize it to the new use for which it is intended. Remixing is the process of adapting and reworking a range of OER, often with added original content, to create something new.

In all forms of working with OER, whether reusing, reworking or remixing, the original OER source materials and resources should be acknowledged. When producing a reworked or remixed OER that was made available for use through a Creative Commons license, the corresponding license should be used on the reworked or remixed OER.


The Semantic Web extends the current, human-readable web by providing a common framework for data to be shared and reused by machines on a global scale. In short, it is a globally linked database. Tim Berners- Lee, inventor of the web, is the originator of the Semantic Web concept, though it is a collaborative effort led by the W3C consortia along with many other researchers and industrial partners. Their aim is to improve, extend and standardize existing systems and tools, and to develop languages for expressing information in a form which machines can process. The result should be a web which increases users’ ability to find the appropriate information. Using content tags and well-defined meanings, the Semantic Web will enable computers to ‘understand’ what they are displaying and to communicate more effectively with each other.


Tagging is the process of adding labels, or ‘tags’, to digital artifacts (including blog posts, social media posts, photos and video) in order to categorize them to make it easier to search for and/or share them. The attachment of tags to posts on social media, such as blogs or social bookmarking sites, can be a convenient method of sorting and finding useful data that you have previously accessed. Tagging is a common feature in websites meant to encourage sharing, such as in Creative Commons, and on sites which aggregate open educational resources. Tags can be user defined (for example, an author creating and adding tags that correspond to key terms in a blog post they are about to publish) or can be selected from pre-defined tags (for example, using the options to tag friends and locations in a status update to be posted to Facebook). Tags can also be added into the content of web pages when they are being created.

Tags serve multiple functions. They allow search engines to locate and index the content of websites and blog posts, and they allow readers to select and view all the content (for example, from a blog they are reading) that corresponds to specific tags. Tags also alert fellow users to the fact that they have been featured (or tagged) in a social media post. In Twitter, the tagging of topics or events in a Twitter post is managed through the use of hashtags, while fellow users are tagged through the inclusion of their Twitter ‘handle’ (e.g. @routledgebooks) in a post.


Commonly also called ‘web addresses’, the uniform resource locator (URL) is a standardized address for web resources that both identifies the resource and tells how to find it. In many ways, a URL is the basic building block of the web as far as individual users are concerned as it specifies the specific location of each individual resource on the web in a generic format that is unique to that particular resource but can also be extended to include other similar resources. An example of this might indicate an article stored as a document or a PDF file, in a certain folder, on a particular server, hosted by a named organization, in a certain country.


This is an abbreviation for ‘virtual learning environment’, meaning the mix of hardware and software that is used to create online learning opportunities outside of the classroom situation. The term originated in a similar context to virtual reality constructions, in which educationalists attempted to create a learning environment where learners engaged with learning resources and tutors in a manner that was markedly different to the conventional classroom or lecture hall, yet which seemed to contain familiar educational components. The VLE attempts to emulate all aspects of the students’ learning environment, but in an online manner using ICT and, normally, a computer network such as the internet or a college/university intranet. A number of commercial VLEs are available for purchase (e.g. Blackboard, Canvas, D2L) as well as a growing number of open source solutions.


‘Web-based learning’ is another synonym for ‘elearning’ or ‘online learning’. Course content is easily delivered on the web, and discussion forums via email, videoconferencing, discussion boards and live lectures (video streaming) are all possible. One of the values of using the web to access course materials is that webpages may contain hyperlinks to other parts of the web, thus enabling access to a vast amount of web-based information.


XML stands for ‘Extensible Markup Language’. It is a text-based markup language which is used to encode documents in a form that is readable by humans and machines, and which is shareable across the web, other  internet applications and any other XML-compatible applications and programs (including many common end-user applications).


YouTube is an online service which is a form of social media, enabling users to post video clips for open access sharing. Users can upload their own videos on a wide range of subjects (and quality standards), which can then be tagged and made available over the internet. There are many informative educational and instructional videos which can be used to extend open education and heutagogy.