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

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 differs 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


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.

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 and post them to your teacher dashboard. Talk about a time-saver!

Advantages of Distance Learning

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

First, distance learning can continue without disruption even in events like snow days or the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 faults.

In fact, many of the drawbacks for them are similar due to the fact that online and distance learning both rely on digital resources.

Problems with Online Learning

There are three main problems 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, 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.

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?


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