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What is the Difference Between Learning Online and Distance Education?

By Bethany Keene
Updated May 17, 2024
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The difference between learning online and distance education is somewhat vague and often depends on the person using the terms; both refer to courses that are taken remotely rather than in person, typically over the Internet. Online learning may sometimes refer to courses that are not taken for college credit, but rather for personal enrichment, although this is not always the case. Conversely, distance education more commonly refers to classes that are taken for college credit, such as one of the many degrees that may be obtained online. Some people pursue their entire degrees through learning online and distance education, while others simply use it to supplement a more traditional education.

Online learning may encompass a wide range of things. This may include free online courses, tutoring or test prep options, and lectures that are either written out or recorded on video. A number of colleges and institutions are making these types of things free to individuals who are interested in learning but may not have the time or inclination to actually return to school. Of course, not all online learning of this type is free; sometimes it will require a fee, but it is usually much lower than actually signing up for a class at a college. Some of the benefits of online classes are missing, such as interaction with other students, but it can still be a good way to learn about new topics.

It is important to remember that these differences between learning online and distance education are not set in stone, and some schools may use the terms interchangeably, or even assign them somewhat different meanings. Distance education often refers to actual college courses offered for credit, and are typically a great deal more expensive than less formal types of online learning for personal enrichment. In the past, the similar term, "distance learning", has also been associated with the concept of correspondence courses, in which materials and assignments were exchanged by post.

Instructional methods for learning online and distance education include various things such as written or video lectures, instructional films, discussion forums, written assignments, and live chats, among others. These are intended to get students as involved in the class as possible. Another important difference to remember is that online learning for personal enrichment may not always be offered from an accredited institution, whereas distance education for credit should always be taken from an accredited college or university to ensure that employers or other schools will accept the credits. Individuals may be able to complete an entire degree in this manner; everything from an associate's degree all the way up to a doctoral degree may be completed via online and distance education.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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