What is the difference between online learning, distance learning and blended learning?

The impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus has led to the majority of teaching being delivered or taught online. As a result, many people are using terms such as online learning, distance learning and blended learning interchangeably, as if they all mean the same, when in fact they do not, and there are important differences between them. IQualify UK offers online learning, distance learning and blended learning depending on the subject, location and the qualification level, so we think it will be helpful to explain to you what the differences between them are.

Online learning

It is probably simplest to think of the terms as describing a spectrum of delivery methods for teaching. The spectrum starts at one end with online learning, across to the traditional face-to-face teaching in a classroom at the other end. Online learning is where all the course content is provided online through the Internet. The content could include recorded lectures, videos, PowerPoint slides, study manuals, recommended reading and self-assessment exercises. You study the course material at your own pace, whenever you have the time and Internet access (and inclination!) using your smart phone, tablet or PC. Online learning can sometimes, depending on the course provider and package, also include the support of a personal tutor who you can contact if you have any questions about the course content. It is also sometimes referred to as e-learning or electronic learning and is a form of self-study (although all courses expect some element of self-study in addition to other teaching).

Distance learning

Distance learning is a broader term which at its simplest refers to studying remotely from the college. Online learning is therefore technically a form of distance learning, but the term is more commonly used to refer to courses where the teachers or tutors are separate to the students. Distance learning is a long-established method, which pre-dates the Internet, as its origins can be traced back to Pitman secretarial courses in the 1840s. The course material would be in text books or other written formats, which would be posted to students, and students would in turn post their essays and assignments back to the college, who then posted the marked work back to the students. Indeed, distance learning continued to be based on the post, while latterly using then modern technology such as videos and CD-ROMs, until the Internet developed enough to replace it as the main method of communication.

The course material for distance learning nowadays is provided online and contains the same content as online learning, but with the addition of live lectures on set times and dates which students are expected to attend. This gives distance learning more of a structure with course start and end dates, and makes it more like classroom teaching. The classes will use group participation software programmes such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, so students can interact with the lesson. Lessons are also normally recorded for future reference. It is also sometimes called distance education.

Blended learning

Blended learning is a mixture of classroom teaching and online learning. Courses are taught face to face in a classroom or other room by tutors and the course material is available online. Students can therefore study the relevant material before the face-to-face element, and similarly follow up on it afterwards. The teaching is often undertaken in blocks, with the time between blocks used to undertake course work such as assignments. It is more expensive that online or distance, because of the need to pay for the tutors’ salary, travel and accommodation etc., but it combines the best of both classroom and online learning!

Advantages of online, distance and blended learning

Face-to-face learning is the traditional inflexible classroom-based learning with set times and dates for lectures and terms. Online, distance and blended learning were becoming increasingly important and widely used teaching methods even before the impact of COVID-19, and will undoubtedly continue to increase in use in the future. The main reason for their popularity is their flexibility which really appeals to people with other commitments. Another reason for their popularity is that you can study at your own pace. If you don’t understand something you can go through it again and again until you do understand without the embarrassment of putting you hand up in class to ask a question! If you are still stuck then you can contact your tutor on a one-to-one basis. They are also significantly cheaper courses because the college does not have to pay for expensive permanent infrastructure such as classrooms, refectories, libraries and offices etc. with their associated costs of maintenance, leases, security, insurance etc.

Synchronous and Asynchronous learning

Another concept that can be referred to when talking about online, distance and blended learning is synchronous and asynchronous learning. Synchronous learning refers to when the tutor and the students are engaging together at the same time and so covers the live online or face-to-face classroom sessions. Everything that is non-live teaching, so all self-study, is asynchronous learning. Thus, online learning is purely asynchronous while distance and blended learning have both synchronous and asynchronous elements.

Try online learning for free

If you are not sure whether online learning would suit you, then you can take the iQualify UK course on Employability Skills for free. You can also take it for free if you are happy with online learning and are interested in the subject! Simply go to  https://www.iqualifyuk.com/mooc/ to register.