Online Education to Distance Learning: What's the Difference?

distance learning online student

If you've decided to get your college degree online and have taken the time to do your homework by researching online education options on the Internet, you'll likely have noticed there's a wealth of information available.

But so much overlapping data can be overwhelming. Terms such as "online learning," "online education," "web-based learning," "e-learning," "distance learning" and "distance learning online" often seem interchangeable and you might wonder if there are any real differences between them.

While all of these terms are a part of the spectrum of today's online education experience, it's important to understand the subtle differences between them and how those differences might affect your choice of an online education program. After all, the long road toward your dream career takes a lot of time, commitment and money, so making the right online education degree decisions are critical.

Defining Online Education Methods

According to, the following are the most familiar online education terms and their definitions:

  • E-Learning – In the world of e-learning, the computer and interactive networks must be involved in your learning, but they are not necessarily the central tools that provide learning content. In other words, e-learning requires that a computer be involved in the learning process but doesn't require learning materials to be delivered to you by your computer. You may have a textbook or binder with your class syllabus that acts as the primary learning resource and your computer will be an accompaniment to other learning tools.
  • Online Learning – Online learning provides course content that is readily accessible on your computer. The content may be delivered by a CD-ROM, a DVD or via the Internet or other network. However, despite the name, online learning doesn't require the use of a network or the Internet. The concept of online learning was actually conceived prior to the development.
  • Web-based Learning – Web-based learning entails the use of a Web browser to access content, typically from a website, although the material may actually be accessed from the hard disk or CD/DVD. The key to this type of learning is that the content is delivered in a Web format utilized by a browser.
  • Distance learning – Distance learning is the oldest of these terms and has reinvented itself over the years, becoming the most complex and intensive of modern computer-based learning concepts. The concept originated with correspondence courses from the 18th century, and as such doesn't require the use of computers or the web, although most of today's distance learning programs have become computer-based. However, the key requirement remains remote class interaction, allowing the instructor to teach and actively interact with the class from a distance. Today, distance learning includes Internet-based live broadcasts, video-conferencing, online discussion groups, voice and text options, chat rooms, social networking sites and e-mail. Although this seems similar to web-based learning, distance learning necessitates instructor participation. In web-based learning, the instructor may produce the course syllabus and other materials, but is not involved in interacting with the student. In modern computer-based distance learning, the computer becomes the conduit through which the teacher and student interact.