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What is the Difference Between Distance Learning and Online Learning?

With many schools still deciding on the best methods for teaching and learning in this unique season, online tools have become more essential than ever. Whether schools are opting for in-person lectures, strictly online classes, or a combination of both, technology can support various teaching styles and learning styles for any setting.


Not all online teaching tools are the same, however, and there is a distinction to note when talking about “distance learning” versus “online learning”. What are these differences, and how do they relate to the average grade school or upper-level education student? We will discuss these points below, along with a few resources to support distance and online learning during these uncertain times.


Learning at a Distance

Distance education can be categorized based on the physical location of students in relation to the teacher. When a student is learning distantly, they are using technology to be virtually present in a classroom, without ever having to physically step foot into the building.


Benefits of Distance Education

Some schools use distance education for foreign or abroad students to help them access higher education courses without having to move from their home countries. They can video conference into a classroom and submit assignments all online.


Other times, students may simply prefer to complete a course all online without having to go to a specific location at a specific time for class. Distance education offers many students the flexibility to complete their schooling on their own time, while still attending to their other personal responsibilities, such as a job or taking care of a relative when traditional classes are in session.


Since classes that utilize distance education are already set up to accomplish everything online, students are less likely to miss out on essential lessons during a snow day, hurricane, or mandatory quarantine. Distance education can also support homeschooling parents who teach a difficult subject to their middle and high school students.


Limitations of Learning at a Distance

While this learning method seemingly has many benefits, there are also a few drawbacks to learning at a distance, especially for younger children. Parents who wish to limit screen time may not meet their goals with distance education, as students must use screens to do their schoolwork.


To utilize this teaching method, students must have reliable access to their online classrooms and pages. This may leave out those who live in areas with a spotty internet connection or who can’t afford the technology necessary to make this a viable option.


While distance education is mostly done at the student’s pace, assignments still have deadlines and the semester does eventually end. It can be difficult to keep track of multiple assignments for multiple classes at once when the student doesn’t receive daily reminders like they might in a traditional classroom. Tools such as a dry erase calendar can help students keep track of homework, tests, and assignment due dates from month to month so they don’t fall behind.


Lastly, cheating may become easier with remote learning for all types of students, elementary age to graduate level. Many teachers who utilize distance education have found ways to combat or significantly reduce opportunities for cheating, although it may never be 100% preventable.


How is Online Learning Different?

Online learning sounds similar to distance education, but there are a few key differences to note. Online learning is not strictly done remotely, and can even be incorporated into in-person classroom instruction. Students can complete assignments and take quizzes with this virtual learning method, all while receiving the benefits of in-person instruction as well. Teachers may choose to use online learning in the classroom or have it handy for homework and other supportive materials.


Benefits of Online Learning

With online learning tools, teachers can diversify their lessons and foster more student engagement throughout the day. Many students view online learning tools as something to look forward to throughout the week, and they can also benefit teachers too.


While students are using online tools, teachers can use the time to plan lessons, interact with students one-on-one, and grade assignments. Many online learning tools also have built-in tests, automatic grading, instruction materials, and lesson plans, freeing up more time for teachers throughout the week.


Drawbacks to Online Learning

Again, online learning relies on access to technology—something not every classroom or school has within their budgets. Many online learning tools are also only designed to support in-person instruction but aren’t helpful for transitioning completely online if schools are shut down.


Screen time in the classroom is also a concern for many parents. Limiting time on the devices or pairing it with having to work out math problems or practice sentence structure on a Stick On Whiteboard can help alleviate these concerns and help students transition between digital and physical learning styles. At home, parents can set up a learning corner in their home with some dry erase wall paint to pair with their online learning tools.


Online learning can also favor more individual instruction. However, teachers can find ways to foster collaboration between students, such as with the use of a dry-erase desk incorporated into the workspace so students can write down ideas and work out problems together without having to waste paper.


Final Thoughts

As virus statistics fluctuate this semester, teachers will likely need to equip themselves with one or both of these instruction methods, along with perhaps a pack of dry erase sticky notes to write, erase, and rewrite the constantly changing policies and plans their districts put forth in the coming months. Both online learning and remote learning can benefit students and teachers alike, especially during times of crisis. Choosing the best method for your student, however, depends on their personal learning style, your access to technology and the internet, and what works best for everyone involved.


Learning through a virtual environment may not be for everyone, but it certainly is helpful for keeping students on track while in-person learning isn’t a viable option. With supportive tools, students of all learning styles can continue their education and avoid falling behind in the long-term.

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