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Digital Curriculum | Online Learning | Distance Learning

What’s the Difference Between Online Learning and Distance Learning?

April 18th, 2024 | 7 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through his own teaching background, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for iCEV, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students by listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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As a digital curriculum developer, middle and high school teachers often ask us the best way to implement digital resources in their classrooms.

Two of the most common buzzwords surrounding these conversations are online learning and distance learning.

While both of these teaching strategies involve students working on computers or devices, there are some differences between them.

In this article, we’ll answer your biggest questions about online learning and distance learning, including:

  1. What’s the difference between them?
  2. What are the advantages of each?
  3. What potential drawbacks can come up?
  4. Which one is best for you and your students?

You’ll also discover whether digital curriculum is a good fit for your program to implement online or distance learning.

1. What’s the Difference Between Online Learning and Distance Learning?

Both online learning and distance learning require similar online learning tools, but there the similarity ends.

Overall there are three major differences between online and distance learning:

  • Location
  • Interaction
  • Intention

Differences in Location

The key difference between online learning and distance learning is location.

With online learning (sometimes called eLearning), students can be together in the classroom with an instructor while working through their digital lessons and assessments.

When using distance learning, students work online at home while the teacher assigns work and checks in digitally.

Differences in Interaction

Because of the differences in location, the interaction between you and your students varies as well.

Online learning will involve in-person interaction between you and your students on a regular basis. This is because online learning is used as a blended learning technique along with other teaching strategies.

Distance learning includes no in-person interaction between teachers and students. However, you’ll likely rely on digital forms of communication such as messaging apps, video calls, discussion boards, and your school’s learning management system (LMS).

Differences in Intention

The final difference between online and distance learning is the intention of the teaching strategy.

Online learning is designed to be used in combination with a variety of other in-person teaching methods. It’s a supplemental way of mixing things up in your classroom to provide a variety of learning opportunities for your students.

Distance learning is a method for delivering instruction solely online, not as a variation in your teaching style.

Now that you know the differences between online and distance learning, let’s move onto the advantages of each one.

2. Advantages of Online and Distance Learning

Depending on how you use them, online learning and distance learning are both viable and effective teaching strategies.

However, they each have their own distinct advantages for both teachers and students. Depending on the outcomes you're trying to achieve, one may be more appropriate than the other for your classroom or program.

Advantages of Online Learning

Online learning provides three major benefits in the classroom.

To start, online learning is an excellent way to increase student engagement when used as part of a blended learning technique.

Blended learning involves using a variety of instructional resources and teaching methods in order to deliver content in multiple ways.

Second, using online learning tools makes it easier for you to differentiate your instruction.

When using tools like digital curriculum, you will have more flexibility and control for differentiating your lessons -- without having to put in extra time during evenings and weekends.

Finally, when you use online learning you’ll find that it saves you time with planning and grading.

That’s because many digital curriculum tools do the heavy lifting for you by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional materials, and assessments.

Many online learning tools also automatically grade those assessments within the curriculum system, saving you hours in the process!

Advantages of Distance Learning

Distance learning has its own unique benefits compared to online learning.

First, distance learning can continue without disruption even when weather or other events force the closure of physical schools and classrooms.

Because you were already teaching remotely, these types of interruptions don’t affect your classes in the same way as traditional in-person classes.

In addition, distance learning provides greater flexibility for students to work at their own pace and review work as needed.

This also ties in with the fact that students can access your course material at the times that work best for them, which is important for students who may have irregular work schedules.

Now that you know the benefits of online and distance learning, it’s time to dive into the drawbacks.

3. Drawbacks of Online and Distance Learning

As with any educational strategy, online and distance learning each have their shortcomings.

In fact, many of these drawbacks are similar due to the fact that online and distance learning methods both employ digital resources for all or part of their instruction.

Problems with Online Learning

There are three main challenges that can occur when using online learning.

To start, online learning relies on your students having access to technology in school on a regular basis.

If your students don’t have regular access to computers or other devices during school, it will be tough to truly implement online learning.

Second, online learning brings up many concerns about screen time in the classroom.

If you try to use online learning start-to-finish in your daily classes, this will definitely cause problems with increased screen time.

However, many schools are incorporating technology into the classrooms, including issuing computers to students through one-to-one initiatives. Moreover, if you find the right balance, you can find ways to reduce screen time even when using online learning on a regular basis.

The final problem that can occur with online learning is that students may cheat when using digital tools.

Cheating is a major problem in schools across the country, and students often take advantage of using technology to make cheating easier.

Though you won’t necessarily find a way to fully stop students from cheating with digital curriculum resources, there are ways to reduce cheating in any classroom.

Problems with Distance Learning

When implementing distance learning, there are four main problems to be aware of.

First, it’s not feasible to use distance learning if your students don’t have access to devices or the internet at home.

Distance learning fully relies on students learning remotely from computers or tablets. So, if you have students that can’t connect in that way, distance learning will be off the table.

Second, distance learning makes it difficult to keep tabs on whether your students are actually working.

After all, you’re not able to walk around and check what your students have up on their screens as you would in the classroom.

This also ties in with the third problem -- distance learning can make cheating even easier than online learning.

Since you as the teacher aren't present to monitor assessments, ensuring honest test-taking is much more difficult and can leave you wondering if your students have genuinely learned the class material.

Finally, like online learning, distance learning can result in even more screen time for your students.

However, unlike online learning, you don’t have as many options for reducing screen time since all of your communication with students is digital!

Now that you’ve learned about the disadvantages of online and distance learning, it’s time to answer one last question: which is best for you and your students?

4. Is Online Learning or Distance Learning Better for Your Students?

At the end of the day, online learning and distance learning each have a place in education. Both integrate technology in ways that can reach students through different instructional methods. However, depending on the needs of you and your students, one could be better than the other.

In our experience, online learning works best for middle and high school teachers who want to provide different instructional methods for their students to learn.

Distance learning typically works best with older students who have consistent technology access at home and will work responsibly on their own.

Distance learning can work well with specific types of students in certain learning environments. However, online learning used in conjunction with other in-person teaching methods in a blended learning setting provides a balanced educational experience that could work well for most learners.

Overcome Your Biggest Teaching Challenges 

Online learning and distance learning are two of the most popular instructional methods teachers and their students use today. Now that you understand the important differences between the two, you're better equipped to choose the approach that's better suited to your learners and integrate it in your classroom.

However, regardless of how you teach, many instructors face the same challenges in the classroom. Meeting your course standards and individual learner needs, as well as trying to balance the use of technology while keeping your students engaged can be difficult to balance.

To help educators like you meet these demands in your classroom, we've put together a guide to help you overcome your biggest challenges as a CTE teacher.

When you review the guide, you'll discover how you can mitigate five major challenges in your classroom so you can focus on serving your students:

Overcome Your Teaching Challenges