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

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

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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 degrees, 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.

Below are other differences between the two modes of learning.


Difference in Interaction

With distance learning courses, interactions tend to be asynchronous “not live” and largely formal questions and answers, while with online learning degrees, interaction are synchronous, live and much more informal.


Difference in Teaching

This is probably the biggest difference between the two. With distance learning, you may have some recorded session but no online face to face interactions. With online learning and as the name implies, all of the learning is done online through a mix of live online sessions, recorded lectures and chat sessions.


Difference in Learning Material

The content of the learning material of any programme should be the same regardless of how the programme is being delivered. However, distance learning courses traditionally depended on static learning material such as physical books and pdf files etc.. while online learning degrees depends on learning material that is more dynamic and interactive such as videos, quizzes and material that change based on how well you do on quizzes.


Pros and Cons of Online and distance learning

The pros of distance learning and online learning are basically the same. Both modes of learning give students the ability to attend the university of their choice without having to sacrifice their careers or their family lives not to mention possibly having to travel across the globe. They give students the ability to study at their own pace and at their own time and they are more cost effective than studying full time at campus.

The biggest drawback of distance and online learning is the physical interaction and life on campus which allow students to make new friends and network with other students and let us not forget the social life and party atmosphere. This is why, distance and online learning is more appealing to older students looking of postgraduate studies and less appealing to younger students looking for their undergraduate degree.


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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