What is Distance Learning?

Are you wondering what the differences between distance learning, blended learning, and virtual learning are? You’re not alone. Learn all about these different terminologies and how they affect your online learning journey.

Monika Jerszynska - 05 May 2021 · 12 min read

Recently, distance learning, in all its forms, has come to the forefront of educators’ and students’ minds amid the Coronavirus pandemic. With classrooms and schools shutting down due to safety concerns, educators are racing to catch up with the times to make sure their students don’t miss out on valuable instruction time.

But there are a lot of different types of distance learning, all with their own unique benefits and weaknesses. And when it comes to researching different types of distance learning options, you’ve probably seen that a lot of these terms seem to overlap. For example, what’s the difference between virtual learning and distance learning? And what do these differences mean for students actually enrolled in online courses?

We’re going to take a look at distance learning in detail; what it really means, its benefits (and disadvantages), and what it really means in relation to all the other online learning terminology that exists. 


First, a note on terminology

When comparing types of distance learning, keep in mind that not every learning institution operates under the same definitions.

For example, some school districts may use the terms “distance learning” and “virtual learning” interchangeably when talking about any learning conducted at home.

In this article, we provide the generally accepted definitions and explain the differences between them. But, when searching for online learning providers, always check with your specific institution about their terminology. That way, you’ll always know what to expect.

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What is distance learning?

Distance learning, by definition, is a method of teaching students without being limited to a classroom. There are plenty of different ways to approach distance learning; it’s a broad term for any form of remote learning. Instead of completing all instruction in a classroom, lectures and learning materials are provided online. Rather than completing schoolwork and doing lessons in a classroom, students do their work at home.

Distance learning can employ a wide variety of resources and methods, including:

  • Online or physical textbook

  • Pre-recorded lectures or other video resources

  • PowerPoint presentations, which the instructor discusses during lessons

  • Scheduled check-ins and discussions between instructors and students

In the past, distance learning was mostly favoured by colleges, universities, and online courses for independent students. But it’s quickly gained popularity in mainstream school settings in recent months due to the restrictions and social distancing guidelines brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Today, it’s much more common for junior and secondary schools to adopt distance learning, as entire school districts move online to help students continue accessing their education when classroom-based learning is deemed unsafe. 

What are the benefits of distance learning?

When compared to traditional in-person or classroom teaching, distance learning yields many benefits, namely, being a more cost-effective, convenient, and motivating learning experience. Let’s take a closer look at some of these advantages in detail below. 

More time-saving and cost-effective

One of the greatest benefits of distance learning is that it eliminates the need to coordinate transportation for students traveling to and from a physical classroom or other educational setting.

Parents, students, and teachers no longer need to spend time commuting to and from the school setting each day or getting stuck in traffic. School districts no longer need to implement complicated and expensive transportation schedules, nor do they have to pay to maintain buses. This saves administrators, students, and teachers hours every week.

Distance learning usually relies more on online and virtual materials as well, which tends to reduce our reliance on school supplies and textbooks. While you generally still do need to purchase some materials, distance learning still tends to reduce the amount of money spent on school supplies and materials. The cost is usually covered in the course fees.

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Another great benefit of distance learning courses in the UK is the increase in flexibility for students and staff.

Instead of being kept in a classroom on a strict bell schedule with attendance, students are free to participate in class on their own terms. This is particularly helpful for non-traditional students or students with busy schedules and lots of extracurricular commitments. Working students can adapt their school schedules to accommodate their working hours. Students with family obligations can multitask, completing classwork while handling their other responsibilities. It offers a far more relaxed approach to learning.

However, flexibility can be a double-edged sword. Some students thrive with a strict bell schedule and regimented attendance. It’s what keeps them motivated to study. Therefore, if you or someone you know is considering taking part in a distance learning course in the UK, take the time to really research and consider if it’s the right thing to do. It’s the responsibility of teachers, students, and parents alike to consider whether distance learning is likely to pose any challenges for some students, and should take steps to mitigate those challenges.


Fewer limitations due to geographical location

Where your location was once a determination of where and what you had to study, today, distance learning offers far more options for students. Instead of only having the learning options of the schools or classes taught within driving or transit distance from you, students can learn from whatever institutions they want to.

 This can be especially valuable for students with difficulty traveling long distances to schools, those with niche interests and limited options in their field of interest in their geographic area, or for students with disabilities who face obstacles getting to and from school.


Class schedules aren’t limited by extenuating circumstances

Love having a snow day? Or being sent home for an afternoon of relaxation when the school’s boiler breaks? Well, sorry to say it, but those days are now gone. 

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we can learn from home. With distance learning and the ability to study remotely with our teachers and students, whenever we need to, learning can now continue - even in a blizzard. Just hope there isn’t a Wi-Fi outage...


Students learn to take ownership of their own learning

In a classroom setting, it can be easy for students to feel like simply being quietly seated in front of the whiteboard is enough for them to learn. It can be tempting to coast and without really focusing on the learning material. It’s easy to be a passive learner. 

But in a distance learning environment, students quickly learn that what matters most isn’t their attendance or simply listening to lectures – it’s what they’re learning.

That’s why motivated students tend to excel in distance learning environments. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of school rules, they can put their energy toward their studies. Students learn to keep their study space well-organized, define boundaries around personal life and school life, and learn to manage their time effectively. And these will help you craft valuable skills needed for university and further study. 

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Potential pitfalls of distance learning

Distance learning can be a valuable tool that can lead to excellent learning outcomes for students. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t face some challenges as well. While these drawbacks don’t discount the obvious benefits of distance learning, they are important factors to consider when choosing your next learning step.

Hidden costs for students and instructors

Unfortunately, for distance learning to take place, students most often need access to a computer, Wi-Fi, and sometimes, study materials. School districts may assume that every student has ready access to all the tools they need for distance learning, but this isn’t always the case. 

Some of these hidden costs can include:

  • Obtaining and maintaining their own computer

  • Keeping a reliable internet connection robust enough to support video calls

  • Keeping consistent electricity access in their home to allow for internet access

  • Maintaining a private study space

For many students, these expenses can be obstacles to learning. And it’s down to the instructors and educational institutions to consider these as potential hiccups when rolling out mass distance learning programmes. 

Technological limitations

How many times have you found yourself cursing at the internet box due to laggy connections? Nearly everyone knows how frustrating it can be to be on a video call or streaming a video when the internet connection suddenly malfunctions. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee that you will never face technical difficulties during your experience, but there are precautions you can take to make sure any hiccups are as minimal as possible to your learning.

When studying via distance learning, students and teachers should take precautions to prevent technological problems. If possible, try to position their computer as close to the Wi-Fi router as possible and keep the box itself up on a ledge or sideboard to ensure the best possible connection. 

Even if the inevitable does happen, having a back-up plan or printed materials for the students to complete on their own is also advised. That way, if any problems do arise, everyone will be prepared and will know how to make up for any instruction time lost.

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It’s difficult to fully monitor student learning

In a classroom, where teachers and students are in the same physical space, it can be easy for teachers to tell whether or not their students are participating in class. If not, then it’s usually easy for teachers to quickly pull students aside to check in on them and troubleshoot solutions to problems impeding their studies. 

But with distance learning, it’s often more challenging to accomplish this. Students can get distracted by the other people in their home. They may even find it hard to concentrate if they have personal struggles going on inside the home. And some students can get away with pretending to focus during lectures without actually participating, or without even being present.

As long as the student submits their work and assignments in a timely manner, the teacher may never be able to tell how the student is really managing their work. The elimination of social cues and different physicalities we pick up on in a classroom setting can really make it difficult for teachers and students to fully understand how the others are feeling.

What are the differences between distance learning vs blended learning?

We often hear the terms “distance learning” and “blended learning” being used in relation to one another. But there are some key differences you should be aware of, so you always know exactly what type of learning experience you can expect. 

In short, blended learning is a specific type of distance learning

In a blended learning setting, students experience the best of both worlds. That is, they can have face-to-face instruction in a traditional classroom setting with a teacher as well as computer-based remote instruction. 

As you can imagine, blended learning can deliver vastly different results for students. By having certain parts of the class take place in person, students have a bit of structure to frame their experience around. In-person meetings or tutorials can be valuable chances for students to connect with their teachers and peers or have discussions that are hard to replicate in virtual spaces. For instance, a blended class may have the teacher deliver lectures in a virtual classroom, but tests, quizzes, or classroom discussions could take place in person.

Blended learning can be a very effective option for students who need flexibility in their day-to-day learning, but who struggle to progress through class materials without some structure. It’s also a good opportunity for teachers to level the playing field, if their students have varying levels of internet access or support at home.

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What are the differences between distance learning and virtual learning?

So now we’ve covered the differences between blended learning and distance learning, let’s learn about another common term used in the distance learning world: virtual learning. 

With virtual learning, teachers provide instruction using online programs or software to enhance their students’ learning experiences. This can take place in a self-paced format, where students are given all necessary lessons and materials up-front and work through them at their own pace, or can involve live lectures and discussions similar to a classroom, but in a video conference. 

In a virtual learning setting, students still have access to their instructors, albeit virtually. They also still have the option to communicate with and interact with the other students and with their instructors, allowing them some of the social benefits they would normally enjoy in a classroom setting.

If you study one of our Academic Programmes, you’ll notice that we implement virtual learning as part of our online learning process. You’ll learn via our intuitive learning management system, which will allow you to connect virtually with your tutor and other students via live seminars and electronic notice-boards. 

We find that this human interaction from students and tutors around the world can help everyone to form better working relationships, communicate more effectively, and, most importantly, make the most out of their online learning experience.



Knowing the differences between different types of distance learning is the first step to making the right choice for yourself or your student. 

When deciding which virtual learning option to pursue, weigh the pros and cons of each method and compare them to your strengths and weaknesses. While some people thrive in a virtual learning setting, others will do much better in a blended setting. 

Think critically about your situation, goals, and your learning style, and you’ll be well on your way to making a great decision for your learning future.


Experience Distance Learning with Melio

Want to find out what distance learning is really about? Experience it for yourself with an unrivalled online learning experience from Melio

Whether you’re looking for one-on-one Tutorials, with an expert tutor who can tailor content around your specific interests and content needs, or are looking to experience a small-group learning community with a 2-week Academic Programme, we have a variety of learning options that can be tailored to your wants and needs. 

Contact our admissions team to find out more about the online learning options we have available for this year. 

Or, you can apply now to kick-start your learning journey today.



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