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

The events of the Coronavirus pandemic have spawned a whole new legion of buzzwords, introducing phrases like “social distancing,” words like “pivot,” and acronyms like PPE, PPP, and CDC into the mainstream, to the point where they are being used by virtually everyone. One of these phrases that will continue to resonate in the minds of parents and students long after the pandemic is over is “distance learning.” Or is it online learning? What’s the difference- or do they mean the exact same thing? 

Believe it or not, there is actually a difference between these terms, though they are often used interchangeably. Here’s the breakdown:

Distance Learning

As its name implies, distance learning is defined by any type of learning that takes place at a distance from an actual school campus or classroom. This means that distance learning was actually in existence long before the Internet was ever a thing.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the old-fashioned term “correspondence course”- this was an education program, usually through a university or trade school, where a student would receive assignments via mail, complete them, and then mail them back to the institution for review and grading. Though the use of a computer was not a requirement or even a possibility at the time, a correspondence course was definitely a form of distance learning.

Today, people use the phrase “distance learning” to describe what students are doing amid the pandemic to stay connected to their class assignments and lessons. Logging in to Zoom classroom sessions, completing Google Classroom assignments, and interacting on other online platforms for school can all be considered distance learning, as long as these activities are actually taking place away from the school building itself.

Online Learning

Once again, another explanatory name. Online learning is learning that takes place online. It’s as simple as that. Is your child reading an e-book that has been assigned to them by a teacher? That is online learning. Are students required to watch a YouTube video about World War II and then answer comprehension questions? Online learning! Is your child using one of the literal thousands of educational portals, platforms, and programs available on the internet today to learn something new? If that’s the case, they are participating in online learning.

However, online learning does not necessarily mean it’s done remotely, or from a distance. A child attending school in person who has been assigned an online typing test in the school computer lab during Technology class is technically participating in “online learning,” but not “distance learning.” A student using a Chromebook in class to access a science assignment is definitely learning something online, but not from a distance. It is a tiny, yet important distinction.

Bottom line: online learning and distance learning can be two different things; however, most students’ Covid-era assignments fall into both categories. Regardless of what you want to call it, be sure to invest in distance learning headsets (or are they online learning headsets?) for a highly satisfactory, distraction-free remote education experience.