What's the Difference between Online Learning and Distance Learning? Blog Feature
Sarah Layton

By: Sarah Layton on August 24th, 2017

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What's the Difference between Online Learning and Distance Learning?

Online Learning | Distance Learning

We get a lot of questions about online learning and distance learning at AES.

Most often, we're asked if our online learning programs are designed specifically for distance learning. 

When we say that our programs are for elearning, the next question we get is "What's the difference?"

In a nutshell, the key difference between online learning and distance learning is geography. Students can be together with an instructor and use online learning, but distance learning implies that students and instructor are separated. 

On this page, we'll take a look the differences between (and advantages of) online learning and distance learning, especially in the context of CTE programs like HealthCenter21 and Business&ITCenter21. 

The Differences between Online Learning and Distance Learning


Essentially, the major difference between online learning and distance learning is geography. But there's more to both concepts than that. 

The big differences include: 

  1. Location
  2. Interaction
  3. Intention

Basically, students can still be in a classroom with an instructor and use online learning. 

Students are separated from instructors and peers in distance learning. 

In addition, online learning requires some degree of in-person teacher interaction.

Distance learning means no in-person interaction at all.  

Last, online learning works as a supplement to direct teacher guidance. 

Distance learning attempts all but replaces that guidance with pre-made instruction. 

Now that we've nailed those down, let's define these terms a little further and talk about their advantages. 

The Definition of Online Learning


Online learning means that your educational tool is based on (and accessible from) the Internet. 

You may also hear this as "cloud-based" education solutions.

Regardless of its name, online learning programs are anytime / anywhere tools, which also means learning from home.

But that's just a bonus of online learning — not its primary function

Online learning tools are a staple of a blended learning environment. They're most often used in the classroom during class time.

As part of a blended learning environment, students use online learning for a portion of class time before transitioning to class discussion, skills practice, lecture, or projects.

There are many reasons that teacher use online learning in the classroom. Here are a few examples of how online learning has had a positive impact on some of our teachers.

1. Online Learning Tools Save Teachers Time


The #1 complaint we hear from CTE teachers is teaching takes too much time outside the classroom

Teachers can quickly lose their free time in the extra work that comes along with teaching. This is especially true for new teachers who don't have formal training in education. 

Plus, every teacher is responsible for a lot of students these days. It's common for teachers to be responsible for more than 200 students at a time. 

With so many learners depending on you, planning can take an eternity outside the classroom

Then you have to factor in grading, progress reports, one-on-one time, and other teaching requirements. 

How do you even have time to sit down with all that responsibility?

Online learning tools help teachers take control of their lives again. 

We're not just saying that because we think it's true. We've heard it straight from our own teachers! 

Example: Bernadette Green, Southeast Guilford Schools


Bernadette Green teaches at South Guilford Schools in North Carolina.

She teaches keyboarding, computer applications, and business finance information technology courses to roughly 400 students every year.


Bernadette started using Business&ITCenter21 for her computer applications and business finance courses. She immediately took to it because of its pre-made quizzes and automated grading. 

In a nutshell, she could test 400 students and have their grades instantly. 

No more grading by hand. No more scanning.

Just results

We're not 100% sure what Bernadette does with all the time she freed up by using our online learning tool. 

But we hope she's getting some well-deserved rest and relaxation. 

2. Online Tools Engage Students


There's a disturbing trend in education today. 

Students don't necessarily fail because they don't understand the material they're learning. 

They fail because they're bored

Online learning eliminates boredom as a factor of failure. 

The idea is that students lose interest in class-long lectures and projects. 

Online learning gives the teacher more ways to jump among different teaching styles. 

So the first portion of class could feature bell work. Then, students can move into online learning modules, followed by a lecture from the instructor. 

This is also known as a blended learning environment. By diversifying the way you teach, you maximize the advantages of each teaching style while minimizing their disadvantages. 

The results are more engaged students who retain information better in the long run. 

Example: Luann Scharkozy, Harmony High School


Luann Scharkozy is in charge of Harmony High School's health science program. 

She adopted HealthCenter21while looking for a solution to keeping students on-track and interested in classroom subjects. 

HealthCenter21 helped her develop a standard classroom itinerary that has proven successful. 

Her itinerary looks like this: 

  • Bell work
  • HealthCenter21 module work
  • Instruction

Luann found that about 90% of her students stay on task with this scheduled approach, which is a huge improvement using any one teaching style for a full class. 

It's even helped her classes hit a 100% pass rate on crucial health science certifications!

With those results, it's clear that online learning is a great way to engage your students. 

Now that we've looked at online learning, let's see how distance learning compares. 

The Definition of Distance Learning


Distance learning means that students are being educated without in-person interaction among their instructor or peers. 

Often, students learn in the comfort of their own homes or satellite areas set up by their schools. 

Regardless, the learning process is almost exclusively individual. There's little interaction among students outside of projects, and someone in Japan could take a course that's offered in Sweden. 

Instructors may use webinars, videos, audio recordings, email, snail mail, or textbooks to teach their students. 

In that respect, distance learning actually relies on online learning.

In fact, it's accurate to say that distance learning is a highly-specific subset of online learning since it frequently takes place over the Internet. 

While that may sound like a difficult learning environment, distance learning has some key advantages. 

1. Distance Learning Is Worldwide


The biggest advantage of distance learning is right in its name. 

Students in any part of the world only need Internet access to learn, complete assignments, and earn credentials in their field. 

So like we said earlier, someone in Japan could take a class in Sweden.

There would be a timezone difference and the student would have to meet that challenge, but they could still complete a course from the other side of the world. 

This is perfect for students separated from the school they want to attend, and it also helps students with packed schedules, social anxiety, and / or health complications. 

We can't say it's as effective as online learning. After all, online learning still includes the benefit of developing a personal relationship with an instructor. 

But it's a great way for students to learn in circumstances where they otherwise can't

2. Distance Learning Is Affordable


While career and technology education is one of the most affordable forms of post-secondary learning, there are often fees that go along with student enrollment. 

Distance learning may have those fees as well.

But because there are no facilities, physical maintenance, or utility associations, enrollment is often much more affordable for distance learning than other education. 

This is ideal for students who may not have a lot of cash or the credit to take out a student loan. 

As long as they can foot the bill for the class and materials, they're good to go. 

That's a lot easier than paying tuition. 

So it may not be the most effective way for students to learn compared to online blended learning. 

But it's a terrific option for students on a tight budget. 

Online Learning vs. Distance Learning: What Works Best for You?

At AES, we firmly believe that you should only use the educational tools that fit your needs. 

At the same time, we also believe that online learning is superior to distance learning. But in a pinch, distance learning is still a good way to educate students. 

Are you ready to try an online learning tool? 

Start your free trial with us today!

Start Your Free Trial >>



About Sarah Layton

Sarah has been with AES since 1998, first serving as a curriculum developer, and now as a customer support analyst and content creator. She is committed to helping instructors gain experience and confidence using our solutions and to providing excellent customer care.