Distance learning Online Learning August 11, 2022

Distance Learning vs Online Learning: Real Differences

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Distance Learning vs Online Learning differences

In today’s era of digital learning, educators and other stakeholders ask about the best ways to use these resources in their virtual classrooms. The buzzwords around such conversations are “what is distance learning?” and “what is online learning?

While distance learning vs online learning, are used interchangeably, there are specific differences between them. Even the meaning of distance learning is different from that of online learning.

So, here’s what these two forms of learning comprise and the significant differences between them.

What is Distance Learning?

Distance learning refers to the courses taught and studied without being physically present at school, college, or university. Such degrees are available at all levels of education; undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate.

The origins of distance education are college correspondence courses. Students learned these through postal correspondence with the educational institution. The first-ever course was a shorthand system, instructed over postcards. So, a distance learning system is usually used for degrees not taught on campus. 

distance learning

Also, all distance learning programs have an online study component, where students can access online learning resources. The significant difference between them is that distance learning often includes face-to-face workshops, summer schools, or residentials as an essential part of the degree program. Consequently, a better term for these courses is part-time, flexible learning, or blended learning degrees.

What is Online Learning?

Online learning courses provide students with unbelievable flexibility and are 100 percent online. Students can choose when, where, and how they want to learn. Also, the classes can have live online sessions, but they are never face-to-face.

Online learning courses allow learners to access Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), such as Collaborate, Moodle, SimpliTaught, or Blackboard. These platforms host recorded lectures, student resources, and e-books. Moreover, learners can utilize the university’s digital library.

online learning

The VLE is an interactive learning tool and a communication medium for students and teachers. Different group projects, quizzes, and discussion forums keep learners engaged and motivate them to interact with peers. Given that today’s working environment requires facilitation through online collaboration, VLE is an incredible way to learn vital communication skills via proxy.

Likewise, there’s a common misconception that online courses do not provide additional support or academic help to students to complete their degrees. However, this is not true, as many universities offer tutor support to students.

Distance Learning vs Online Learning: The Differences

Distance learning vs online learning, both require somewhat the same learning tools, but there are some significant differences based on location, interaction, and intention of online and distance learning systems.


eLearning follows a purely online approach, where learners must attend virtual classes on a schedule. Educators oversee these classes and assist students in navigating assignments and lessons. Also, examinations and assessments are conducted virtually through Learning Management System (LMS). Therefore, online learning is not location-specific and only relies on the virtual availability of learners and instructors.

On the contrary, the distance learning system may or may not have online components. It follows a mixed approach, including print, electronic, and face-to-face interactions. Usually, learners study at home and are expected to travel to test centers for examinations. Occasionally, students also have to attend in-person classes or practicals at Learner Support Center. Hence, location does play an important role when it comes to a distance learning system.


Like the location, the nature of student-teacher and student-student interactions also differs between online and distance education. As mentioned above, online classes operate on well-defined modules and virtual courses. This form of learning is more engaging by following an interactive pattern and a blended digital approach, whether in group activities or one-on-one assignments. Furthermore, there are discussion forums and groups where students can collaborate and learn from each other.

Interactions in distance education are minimal and only happen during face-to-face classes or practical sessions at the Learner Support Centers. Also, such interactions become sparse in remote areas due to the lack of resources and infrastructure. You may find some online forums and groups where students interact with fellows, but even they are very few and far between.


Finally, the difference between distance and online learning is the teaching strategy’s intention. Online learning is designed to replicate the experience of in-class learning in virtual settings. The teaching methods used are closely related to the ones used during in-person classes, offering much more interaction and collaboration among students.

Whereas, in the case of distance learning, the teaching methodology is very dry. The students get the study material and learn at their own pace, but the overall education is passive and less interactive. 

Now that we know the differences let’s look into the advantages and disadvantages of online and distance learning.

Advantages of Distance Learning

Distance learning has its own unique set of benefits. Firstly, it can continue without disruptions in events like the global pandemic because you are already teaching remotely, so such interruptions won’t affect your classes as in the case of traditional in-person learning.

Likewise, it offers students greater flexibility as they can work whenever they like and review their work as needed. 

Also, students can access course material at the times that suit them, which is essential for learners with irregular work schedules.

Disadvantages of Distance Learning

When using distance learning, students and instructors may face four main problems.

  1. Firstly, it’s not feasible to use distance learning when your students don’t have access to the internet and devices at home, as it entirely relies on students learning remotely. 
  1. Secondly, educators may find it challenging to keep a tab on students on whether they are actually working or not. 
  1. Thirdly, distance learning can make cheating even easier than online learning as you can’t go around and check what students have on their screens. 
  1. Lastly, like online learning, distance learning also results in increased screen time for your pupils.
advantages and disadvantages of Distance learning vs Online Learning

Advantages of Online Learning

Online learning offers three significant advantages in virtual classrooms. 

  1. It enhances student engagement using various learning and teaching tools and resources to deliver content in multiple ways. 
  1. Moreover, this type of learning helps you differentiate your instruction. Using digital curriculum tools gives you more flexibility and control to determine your lessons, saving you from putting in extra time during evenings or weekends. 
  1. eLearning is also time-efficient with planning and grading because digital learning tools do all the work by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional videos, materials, and assessments. 

Most online tools automatically grade those assessments and post them to the teacher’s dashboard.

Disadvantages of Online Learning

Like any educational strategy, online and distance learning both have their flaws. As both rely on digital resources, many of their drawbacks are similar.

Here are the three major problems that can occur using eLearning.

  1. Firstly, it relies on your students having the technology and uninterrupted internet. If the learners don’t have regular access to computers, WiFi, and other study tools, it becomes nearly impossible to implement online learning.
  1. Secondly, there are concerns about screen time. Students will have increased screen time, affecting their emotional and physical well-being. So, instructors and learners must find the right balance to reduce screen time, even when using online education regularly. 
  1. Finally, the use of technology makes cheating easier. Students may take advantage of digital learning tools usage and cheat. 

Distance Learning vs Online Learning

Both online and distance learning have their place in education, each having unique characteristics. 

At the end of the day, choosing which system works best for you depends on the educational needs of the students.

Online learning typically works wonders for middle and high school teachers who want to help students learn in various ways. 

Distance learning is usually suited for older learners, who have consistent technology access, and can work responsibly and independently.

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