There has always been shovelware in training, be it in the classroom, on CD-ROM, on videotape, in books, or on the Web. My experience of the pre-"e" days was not in trying to sell shovelware, so I can't speak for the reaction that those vendors were getting. But my perception at the time was that unless vendors were piling it high and selling it cheap, the training market was very reluctant to explore it.
Despite this, e-learning in one form or another is now an accepted mainstream part of most corporate training and academic education initiatives.
Several years ago at a conference in Paris I delivered a paper with the title "Think beyond technology -- e-learning success is about business processes" in which I made just the point that process is more important than either content or technology. At the time I was frustrated that trainers were just viewing e-learning as technology, and were allowing software functionality to define learning processes instead of the other way around. And beyond learning processes, they were expecting e-learning to exist independently of their other knowledge flows instead of being integrated with the corporate nervous system.
E-learning is not a technology, it's a learning process that invokes technologies. The Web is a technology. E-mail is a technology. Active Server Pages is a technology. Streaming media is a technology. E-learning, like book- learning, is a process. Thinking of e-learning as a technology is what leads to the kind of crass online experiences that most people dislike so much.