What's the difference between online learning and distance learning?

What’s the difference between Online Learning and Distance Learning?

In today’s digital era, terms such as ‘Online Learning’ and ‘Distance Learning’ have become prevalent, with their meanings often interchanged. While both offer a great deal of flexibility to its learner, there are differences between the two, which this article lays out.


What is Distance Learning?

Distance Learning or Distance Education is a term used to refer to courses that are studied without the need to be physically present at the school, college or university. Distance Learning degrees are available at all academic levels; undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate.

Its origins are college correspondence courses, whereby education materials were post-mailed to the student. The majority – if not all – of the course was learnt through the postal correspondence between the student and the educational institution. For history buffs, the first correspondence course was a shorthand system, taught over postcards. This initiative from the 1840’s was the brainchild of Sir Issac Pitman. The antecedent to Online Learning, the term Distance learning is sometimes applied to all degrees not taught on-campus.

All Distance Learning courses have an online study component, with access to online learning materials. The key difference is that they also often include face-to-face workshops, summer schools or ‘residentials’ as part of the degree programme. As a result, a more suitable term for these types of courses is Part-time, Blended Learning or Flexible Learning degrees.

For example, the University of Northampton MBA programme allows students to access the full online library of resources from the University of Northampton, but also incorporates optional, weekend MBA workshops for those that prefer a personal interaction to their study. The University of Leicester MBA is similar, with masterclasses available at global centres.


What is Online Learning?

Online Learning courses are 100% online, providing students an incredible level of flexibility. They can choose where they learn, when they learn and even how they learn. Classes can have live online sessions but are never face-to-face.

With Online Learning courses, students have access to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) – such as Moodle, Collaborate or Blackboard – hosted with recorded lectures, student resources and e-books. Additionally, students have a University’s considerable digital library at their disposal.

The VLE acts as a communication medium and interactive learning tool. Discussion forums, group projects and quizzes keep students engaged and encourage peer interaction. Given how much of today’s working environment requires facilitation through online correspondence, this medium of study is an excellent way to learn essential communication skills by proxy.

A common misconception with Online Learning courses is that students are not provided additional support or academic help to complete the degree. This is untrue as reputable universities provide UK tutor support to students undertaking the programme. These tutors are contactable via email or Skype when required.

The Edinburgh Napier University Online MBA includes comprehensive tutorial support; a personal UK tutor offers advice regarding assessments, assignment feedback, answers questions etc., – no different to full-time students.


Regardless of study preference one thing is true between Distance Learning and Online Learning: one must be self-disciplined and self-motivated, both very useful skills to cultivate in life.


Interested in pursuing a Distance Learning degree or Online Learning course? View all available UK degree courses, or schedule a personal session with a Higher Education Consultant.

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