In this post, we will look at several terms used in the field of online education that are commonly confused and even at times misused. The purpose is to try and clarify these terms for times when details matter.
Online learning is the general mother term for all the other terms referred to in this post. Online learning encapsulates distance learning, e-learning blended learning, and virtual learning.
Online learning is simply learning that takes plus via technology over the internet. This is a broad and vague definition and essentially captures almost all learning over the internet. This is not to say that this is wrong. Instead, if we want to better communicate are intentions as educators we may need to be more specific at times.
Distance learning is often seen as the same as online learning. The main difference is that distance learning is focused on students that are geographically separated from the institution that is offering instruction.
This essentially means that distance learning was a marketing term to attract students far from the university or institution. Again, this is not to say that having such a term is bad. Rather, the goal here is to explain the source of the many terms that are used in this context today.
E-learning is traditional education happening through an electronic medium over the internet. With e-learning, there is normally a student-teacher relationship in which they interact with each other. Online learning in general does not require this. The students and teacher may also be in the same physical space, such as a campus, but still teaching and learning online. This would not meet the definition of distance learning.
The term e-learning is also commonly associated with completing a degree or some sort of set curriculum. The planning can be rigorous and there are clear start and end times in terms of progress. For example, most e-learning experiences involve the use of a learning management system such as Moodle, which provides a framework for course delivery. In other words, e-learning is often more structured then general online learning or distance learning.
Blended learning is a combination of any of the examples above with traditional classroom instruction. However, blended learning is generally associated with e-learning. This means that there is some combination of face-to-face and e-learning happening in a particular educational experience.
The ratio between face-to-face and e-learning will vary based on the course, teaching style, student preference, and other factors. For example, some teachers use the e-learning aspect of their course only for posting learning materials and not really for instruction. Other teachers flip their classroom and post lectures online and have discussion and feedback take place during class. There are lots of different flavors to this experience and finding the right combination is something every educator should explore.
Even though it is common for people to mix these different terms when speaking about education in an online context there are times when it is important to know which term to use. Naturally, there are other terms and even other definitions concerning this topic but that is a conversation for another time.