There are different types of e-learning courses. I going to draw a divide between public and private sector courses purely to help my thinking. The divide is, of course, not that simple but it's a useful starting point for this post.
Appearance is the most obvious difference and this is down to money. The content of the private sector world is dynamically displayed, well designed and often involves bespoke video. The interaction is with the software and often restricted to the odd multiple choice instant feedback job. It's mostly about absorbing the content. It's more about web design than learning design. Pedagogy is firmly didactic and pedagogical thought seems lacking.
For the public sector, there is little money to sink into creating content to the same dynamic, multimedia standard. One area I am starting to explore is the easy creation of web content so that educators are less likely to whack on a powerpoint or word document. Making the content bespoke to a purely online course is an important step which many have not taken. The DIY nature means that it seems less valid to just put content up. They need to look good for this to work. Within education, there is unwritten understanding that learning activities are required regardless of this. However, I'm sure some would make do with just providing content if they could. Hiding behind making the content dynamic would make this easier.
Often, people bemoan the poor look and feel of VLEs. This is a fair point when compared to some of the communication/collaboration tools out there. It's not fair, however, if they are comparing to whizzy graphics of an expensively put together e-learning course. Pedagogically, such courses have less going for them even if they look the part.
This is not to suggest that HE online courses have good learning design across the board. Far from it, my job is try and facilitate this process and we have a way to go just to get everyone listening. However, there is conscious effort to make this happen. Private companies who get into e-learning steer clear of the asynchronous learning-type activities because they want to produce a produce and then sell that product. Ongoing costs are not on the agenda and facilitators cost.
A pertinent point to make is that this is largely what the customers want. Learners of all ages are used to being thrown content and then make to make sense of it themselves. They are not clamouring for a scaffolded learning process. They are not used to it and it seems too hard. All the better if the content they are given looks and sounds great.
Overall, there are massive differences with learning activities, software interaction, use of multimedia, look and feel and pedagogical design. My observation for this post is that private companies concentrate creating impressive looking, well designed software and where they produce courses themselves they often don't go much further with the pedagogy. Is this a bad thing? I guess it's just an observation.