What’s the difference between online and distance learning?


12th Feb 2016


Online study


You’ll often find that terms like ‘online learning’ and ‘distance learning’* are used interchangeably by many online resources.

In fact, many universities and higher education institutions use these terms interchangeably (and incorrectly), so we’re going to refer to our own courses in this definition.

There are actually some very significant differences that can dramatically change the way that each course is taught and what a student can expect to get out of it. Here’s our guide to the two course types…


Distance learning

Distance learning is the ‘traditional’ self-study course, also known as a ‘correspondence course’. Materials and learning resources are sent to students via post or email and students must complete the set tasks according to the course schedule.

On a distance learning course, often the only interaction with a tutor is when assignments are submitted for marking; it’s also rare to interact with fellow students.

This freedom not to attend lectures or examinations at set times makes distance learning courses handy for students with families or careers to manage, as the student sets their own pace and timetable of study. However, these types of courses require a lot of motivation as students must manage their time and meet deadlines with very little support.


Online learning

Online courses, like those offered by University of Essex Online, are more than just a modern application of the distance learning/correspondence course model (though they share similarities).

We utilise a virtual learning environment to share our multimedia lecturecasts and student resources. These resources can be accessed at any time, enabling students to create a study timetable that fits around their work and family commitments. Students are also able to read module notes and review assignments at any time and all of our textbooks are provided in eBook format (included in the price of our tuition fees).

The difference between distance learning and online learning is that our learners also have the opportunity to discuss questions and chat with fellow students via online discussion forums, providing a valuable network of support and feedback. Our tutors also run regular live online Q&As that students are encouraged to attend, enabling them to communicate in real-time.

University of Essex Online also recognises that students perform better when they receive personal support and guidance from their institution, so each student is supported by a dedicated Student Support team who are available via email and phone. These Student Advisers can answer any questions that a student might have about academic processes, their workload or the virtual learning experience.


In summary, there are many overlaps between distance learning and online learning and it’s easy to confuse the two. If you’re researching a course, make sure you read the course and institution’s details carefully to ensure you choose the type of learning that is right for you.


We have a dedicated Admissions team who can give you information about all our courses and our learning experience – why not give them a call today!