Talent, Technology

Online Learning, E-Learning, and Distance Learning: Grasping the Difference

While learning and development (L&D) professionals often use the terms “online learning,” “e-learning,” and “distance learning” interchangeably, they don’t mean the exact same thing. Here’s how they’re different:

Online Learning

Online learning is when instructors and trainees use online tools to interact with learning material. What separates online learning is its emphasis on using the Internet as its delivery and engagement methods. Sometimes online learning can consist of a combination of e-learning and blended learning, but learners are typically remote a majority of the time and aren’t usually required to be present in a classroom at any time while they’re learning. And while they may have a few learning sessions that are broadcasted live or might take assessments in person, learners typically engage with on-demand and recorded or downloadable content more often as they’re completing a course.
Online learning is convenient for instructors and learners alike. Learners can access learning content when it’s convenient for them from wherever they are, as long as they have access to the Internet. And instructors can upload learning content at any time and can easily reuse or repurpose learning content for repeated or related courses when needed.


E-learning is short for “electronic learning.” It’s often confused with online learning because it, too, often uses an Internet connection. However, sometimes mobile apps that are accessed offline can be used, as well as other software and modules that don’t require an Internet connection for access. What differentiates e-learning from online learning is its emphasis on technology as its delivery and engagement method, not necessarily the Internet. Even though most technology is connected to the Internet nowadays, with e-learning, the technology used doesn’t always have to be connected to the Internet. In addition, with e-learning, trainees may access learning content and communicate with their instructors through online mediums while still being in the same building.
E-learning is convenient for instructors who have reliable software and technology at their disposal. It makes delivering and assessing learning material easier. And modern learners are more adept at using technology to learn than ever before and greatly benefit from being able to access and engage with learning content using technology.

Distance Learning

Distance learning is where learners engage with learning material from a distance, sometimes from different locations across the globe. Learners don’t often interact with their peers or instructors with distance learning either, at least not in real time, and definitely not in the same physical locations. And while a majority of distance learning programs rely on Internet connections to distribute learning materials nowadays, learning materials can still be distributed via snail mail and textbooks.
Due to most learners being in so many different time zones, it is almost impossible to have live classroom sessions online, and instructors and peers never meet in person. Distance learning, then, tends to be ideal only for organizations that have a global workforce who don’t necessarily need to meet in person or in real time for training.

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