Studying at home: the difference between online and distance learning
Jade O'Donoghue

Studying at home: the difference between online and distance learning

Online learning vs distance learning courses

First published date August 15 2012 Amended date March 10 2016

One thing that often baffles people hoping to do a self study course at home is trying to work out the difference between online learning and distance learning. Trying to decide which subject to take can be hard enough without getting tangled up in complicated terminology, and getting to understand what these descriptions mean is vital to making informed decisions.


It’s true, there isn’t a huge distinction between the two modes of study, and in many cases they are used inter-changeably. They both refer to self study courses you can do at home, often at a time to suit you. However, there are a few things that generally separate distance learning from online learning and it’s worth knowing these before you choose your course and pass over your hard-earned cash.


Distance learning courses are self-study and involve things being sent by post, such as textbooks, worksheets and DVDs. Sometimes this material is sent via email.  In either case, the participant will work at home, usually alone, to complete the course. Distance learning courses sometimes don’t involve a specific teacher – it’s more about you completing your work independently and only sending it back for marking.


Online learning is similar but there will be more interaction with others – such as in online forums or taking tests. You will be able to contact your teacher this way too – via email or by video link. Online courses sometimes involve video seminars being broadcast live to pupils all over the UK at the same time – so it’s just like being in a classroom but you’re scattered about the country and sometimes even the world.


Just to confuse things more, online learning are sometimes referred to as ‘e-learning courses’ or ‘web-based learning’. These usually mean the same thing though and will be associated with courses that involve the internet for learning.


If you’ve been browsing courses you can do at home, you might have seen this term – ‘distance learning course with attendance’ or ‘online course with attendance’ – and wondered what it meant. This is where you go to a university or college a small number of times over the duration of your course. This might be to meet your tutor and discuss your progression or perhaps to take a moderated exam. It’s unlikely that this will involve sitting in a classroom and receiving a lecture as you will be doing most of your learning at home.


It can be confusing reading these terms, especially as different colleges and schools will describe their courses differently. Our best advice in any case is to read the course details thoroughly – this is important for any course you’re looking at, but this is vital in considering online and distance learning as this is where you will find out things like how much is completed online, whether you have to attend anything in person, whether you will be assigned a tutor and more.


Online and distance learning courses are very rewarding and a convenient way to fit learning into your day-to-day life with their flexibility, so try not to get overwhelmed by the terminology when you start your search. If you ever have any questions, we’re here to help, so chat to us on Facebook and Twitter and we’ll try to address your concerns. Plus, if we’ve pique your interest in online or distance learning, get ideas from our top ten online courses, find out more about the benefits of this kind of course or search by subject here.


Jade O'Donoghue

Jade will talk your ear off about rowing if you let her. She studied an MA and NCTJ diploma in Journalism at Brunel but her course-taking didn't stop there, having tried a number of different subjects since working here, even magic. Whether you're an expert who wants to share their knowledge, a student who's had a great experience or you just want to say hi, she'd love you to get in touch through our social media pages.