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What Is Distance Learning, and Can It Work for You?

What is distance learning: A woman in front of a laptop with her baby on her lap

COVID-19 forced students to leave the traditional classroom behind and complete their school year using distance learning and online learning tools. But while the coronavirus has increased demand for these remote learning opportunities, the road to a more flexible education didn't start with the pandemic.

Distance learning has been around since the early 1800s — long before online learning was possible. And to this day, there are some important differences between distance education and online education. So, what is distance learning? Here's a look at what separates these two flexible options and the learning experience you'll get when you choose to study from a distance.

What Is Distance Learning?

What is distance learning: A young man sitting on the couch and writing on a table

To understand distance learning, you have to dive into some semantics. With terms like online learning, e-learning, virtual learning, blended learning, and synchronous learning, the world of flexible education can feel like swimming in alphabet soup. Let's wade through it together.

Online learning, e-learning, and virtual learning are just different words for the same thing: They refer to any form of education that uses digital learning tools like online assignments, learning software, video conferencing, webinars, and so on. But distance learning is (at least sometimes) different. So, what is distance learning, and how is it different?

To understand the differences, picture a Venn diagram. The circle on the left represents distance learning, the circle on the right represents online learning, and there's a big overlap in the middle.

When Is Distance Learning Not Online Learning?

What is distance learning: Two overlapping circles

Most distance learning now takes place online, which means most distance learning is now a form of online learning. (For anyone keeping track, we're now in the center of the Venn diagram.) However, distance learning doesn't have to take place online. (And now we move to the left of the diagram.)

Distance learning can still take place through the mail — yes, the old-fashioned snail mail — in the form of correspondence courses, which is when an instructor mails you your learning materials, and you mail back your completed assignments. It's distance learning, but it's not online learning.

When Is Online Learning Not Distance Learning?

You now know how to answer the question, "What is distance learning?" but how does online learning differ? Regardless of whether a distance learning course is done online or through snail mail, it has some distinguishing features. In a distance learning environment, students work at their own pace and follow their own schedule. Students never have to be available at a set time and will never have to meet with their instructor in-person. Some online courses offer this same flexibility. They fall in the middle of our Venn diagram.

Let's move for a moment to the right side of our diagram. Online students may have to follow a set schedule and attend their classes in real-time. They may have a synchronous learning experience, which is when all the students and the professor are in the same place (even if that place is a virtual meeting room) at the same time.

An online education may also be part of a blended learning environment. In a blended learning environment, students will either meet in a traditional classroom part of the time and work online from home part of the time, or they will always meet in a traditional classroom but may spend some of their classroom time working with online learning tools like an educational software program.

Which Is Better: Distance or Online Learning?

The center of the Venn diagram is the sweet spot. Online distance learning is the most flexible form of education. It has expanded learning opportunities for non-traditional students, including stay-at-home parents, older students, full-time workers, and prison inmates. Through distance learning programs, open universities, which admit any adult who wants to learn, have made it possible for more people to pursue higher education and get online degrees.

How Does Distance Education Work?

What is distance learning: A little girl with headphones using a laptop

Distance education is available to both part-time and full-time students, and to students at every level from elementary school to high school and university.

In a distance learning environment, students work through their course materials at their own pace and never have face-to-face interactions with their instructor. Most communication takes place through an online learning management system (LMS), email, or snail mail — the delivery method will depend on the type of distance learning that you sign up for.

Types of Distance Learning

We already touched on the two types of distance learning courses when we answered the question "What is distance learning?" Here's a look at how these two types of distance courses work:

  1. Online courses: These courses use educational technology like an LMS to assign coursework and facilitate communication between students and teachers or students and other students.
  2. Correspondence courses: With correspondence education, students receive their learning materials through email or snail mail and will communicate with their instructor in the same way.

Regardless of the type of distance education you sign up for, you'll face similar advantages and challenges.

Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

A student using computer and mobile device for studying

Distance learning has stood the test of time (for nearly 200 years) because it offers some important benefits. But that doesn't mean it's all sunshine and online degrees. There are pros and cons of choosing this form of education over traditional education.


Distance learning is extremely flexible. It's a good option for students with unpredictable or busy schedules. You don't have to follow a professor's timeline and can work at your own pace.

It's also accessible. Students who live in remote locales or can't attend a traditional school can still get an education at a distance.


Distance learning can be expensive. While there are affordable options, many distance learning programs are offered by private and for-profit institutions. Even when you find an affordable option, you'll still need access to a computer and a reliable internet connection to do your online coursework.

Distance learning programs have a reputation for providing low-quality education. Make sure the program you choose is accredited to ensure they meet national education standards.

You're on the honor system. This may be one of the factors contributing to distance learning's bad reputation: When there's no teacher looking over your shoulder and tons of online tools at your fingertips, it's easy to cheat.

Some students find it harder to focus in a distance learning environment. Depending on your learning style, it can be harder to concentrate in an online forum and hard to find time to complete your coursework when you set your own schedule.

Your teachers can’t answer your questions immediately. If your course allows you to communicate with an instructor (not all courses do), you'll have to wait for them to reply through email or the LMS, which could happen days later. If you need more help with your coursework, it may be better to hire an online tutor.

You Can Go the Distance

A smiling girl doing her homework at home

Now that you know the answer to "What is distance learning?" and understand its pros and cons, there's one more important question to ask yourself: Is it right for you? In spite of the drawbacks, distance learning makes education more accessible to more people. If you need flexibility, have access to a computer and an internet connection, and are comfortable setting your own schedule (and sticking to it), then a distance education can help you homeschool your child, finish high school, or get an advanced degree.

With distance learning, you don't have to choose between your education and your other priorities — like keeping safe from coronavirus, raising your family, or working full-time. Just make sure the program you choose is accredited so you can access course materials designed by a qualified professional. Then, start learning at your own pace.

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