Internet-based education offers everything from a free maths lecture to a full course on ancient Roman history. But it has its critics

1 "E-learning" is a very broad term

It refers to all internet-based education, which could be anything from a free maths lecture on iTunes to a colour-coded language app or even a fully interactive eight-week course in musculoskeletal anatomy from Harvard.

2 It's been around for a while

The Open University began using an internet-based conferencing system as a learning tool in the late 80s and now offers entire degree courses online. Since 2000 the web has been used by schools and universities as a means of distributing audiovisual material and course documentation.

3 It hasn't found its niche yet

Some argue that the internet works best as a subsidiary to traditional studies, so-called "blended learning", but others think the main thrust of e-learning should be to provide free education to disadvantaged people worldwide who don't have access to university. Detractors feel feel it has no place in mainstream education and should only offer "learning for learning's sake".

4 It comes in various shapes and sizes

The non-profit Khan Academy is a bank of free video lectures given by charismatic academics whereas popular software platforms such as Blackboard and Canvas allow teachers and students to connect more effectively online. Moocs (Massive Online Open Courses), which are free short online courses offered by reputable universities, are becoming immensely popular and often comprise multimedia material and interactive game-like environments.

5 Moocs are free, but they have potential to be lucrative

The biggest US Mooc network, Coursera, hosts courses from 100 universities worldwide, who hope the free courses will encourage people to sign up for paid modules.

6 The UK is already being "Mooced"

The British equivalent to Coursera, Futurelearn, now offers courses from more than half of the top 40 UK universities.

7 Not all e-learning is free

In a few universities Mooc certificates have been exchanged for actual college credit, which could become increasingly valuable in the job market. Full degree qualifications remain available only to the paying student.

8 e-learning could threaten teaching as we know it…

Mooc pioneer Peter Norvig argues it is easier to achieve a one-on-one teaching experience online than in a crowded classroom. Also, online forums and communities allow users to discuss problems in real time with fellow students stuck on the same issue.

9 … But not everyone thinks it's fulfilling its potential

Some critics believe that a computerised environment will stifle creative expression and independent thought. Others point out that, although Moocs might theoretically offer schooling to disadvantaged students, so far almost all participants in the courses are already highly educated and hail from the developed world.

10 Either way, e-learning's big data could be valuable

Millions of people have signed up to hundreds of apps, lectures, tests, platforms and courses and because every right answer and every flunked exam will be documented, a huge quantity of data will be collected. These "learning analytics" could be used to provide teachers with agreater insights into a deeper understanding of education as a whole. © Guardian News and Media 2014