Distance learning and e-learning

Is online learning (also known as e-learning) an evolution of traditional distance learning? What are the differences between one and the other? Why is e-learning achieving the prestige and popularity that its big sister did not have distance learning?

In this post we try to answer these questions starting from the 10 fundamental differences between what we know today as e-learning and the conventional distance learning of a few years ago.

Where we learn

I’m sure you remember when ten or fifteen years ago you signed up for a distance learning course: after a few days, you received by post a package or envelope containing the teaching material, usually on a CD-ROM or a pen-drive (it’s already rained!). You were probably downloading and printing what you needed and supporting elbows at home or where you could take your notes.

Currently, in an online course or e-learning we only need a few keys and a device with internet connection to enter a virtual site called LMS in the slang of e-learning (Learning Management System) or online training platform. Some of the best known and used LMS are Moodle, Chamilo or Blackboard: although every day some more are born, still no other has been so strongly entrenched.

Once the student accesses the corresponding platform, he or she will verify that the course materials are available at any time of the day and from any place and device with an internet connection.

This point logically already supposes an improvement in the user experience, that is avoided to load with folios, notebooks and folders if it wishes to change of location its place of study.

How each student’s participation is recorded

In traditional distance learning it was only possible to record participation when the student sent his doubts or answers to an evaluation questionnaire to the tutor. If the tutor was methodical and organized enough, he would have a spreadsheet where he would manually collect all the participations and grades of each student throughout the course and at the end.

In the online training every participation data of every student, no matter how insignificant it may seem (from opening a presentation to answering an online questionnaire, to answering a few questions in a forum), absolutely everything is automatically registered in the platform without the tutor having to do anything.

Once again, the user experience is rewarded: both with respect to the teacher, who can concentrate his energy on tutoring the students, and with respect to the student, who can be sure that all his activity is being recorded in case he needs to access it.

Course Focus

Conventional distance learning (and still today in many low-quality e-learning courses) was based on traditional teaching: the teacher has the knowledge and transmits it to the students, who simply receive it and interact passively: only to ask questions and solve some evaluation questionnaire proposed by the teacher, questionnaires that are normally evaluated immediately and automatically: the training process as “training”.

This gives rise to equal content for all students: what experts in the subject have called canned content, regardless of the differential characteristics of each student, their experiences, previous knowledge and training needs.

Quality training in any modality (distance, classroom, blended, online) should be as flexible, diversified and scalable as possible so that it can be adapted to each student. It will seem impossible but from my experience I can say that it is not.

Of course, a certain investment of time and effort is required on the part of both the training organiser and the teacher, but the result is worthwhile as it represents a real and significant learning experience.

On the part of the organization, because this approach requires groups of no more than 20 students per course; and on the part of the teacher, because it requires a change of chip: in this case we no longer start from what the teacher is going to transmit, but from the characteristics of the student body and its formative needs.

Content Types and Updates

As we have seen, in traditional distance learning the formats were flat or non-interactive: documents and presentations normally printable with a lot of text and few graphic or multimedia elements. And logically they could only be updated before sending them to the student.

On the other hand, technology allows us to use innumerable digital, interactive, easily accessible, ubiquitous and permanently updatable formats: presentations, images, videos, web pages, documents, concept maps, interactive activities, games… which can also be related and linked to each other through hyperlinks (known as hypertextuality).

This advantage allows to dynamize the formative action up to the limits that only we want to put ourselves.

Content structure

In relation to the previous points, in traditional distance training a linear sequencing of contents and activities was imposed, where the student had to overcome one activity and objective in order to try the next, by means of a single possible itinerary proposed by the teacher.

Thanks to technology it is now easier to create multiple learning pathways depending on the type of content and the starting point and needs of the student body. In this sense Noa Orizales proposes 3 proposals to organize the content of your virtual course: sequential, divergent and collaborative.

Role of the tutor and the student

According to the previous points, you can imagine what the change of roles is: in conventional distance training the teacher or tutor was a transmitter of knowledge and the student, a passive receiver or with little participation.

In a quality e-learning the teacher will be a facilitator of resources and experiences that according to his expert opinion, favor the learning of each student from their individual needs. And the student goes from being a passive receiver to actively building his own learning from his own training needs, thus becoming the protagonist of that learning.


In conventional distance learning (that which arrived by post), the tutor was practically inaccessible: the student could only raise doubts via email or telephone and did not know when they would be answered.

Once again, technology favours this point, as online training platforms offer multiple channels of communication, both synchronous (chat, videoconference) and asynchronous (forums, private messages): synchronous messages can be recorded and asynchronous ones make it easier for the student to contact the tutor directly at any time of the day or night, being registered as well.

Logically, this does not mean that the teacher must be connected 24 hours a day waiting to receive messages, but that the platform will automatically send the private messages received to the email that has linked to the course. In this way, the teacher can respond almost immediately (to enhance the user experience it is recommended that the response be less than 24 hours).

Relationship with your peers

In conventional distance learning there was normally no relationship between students.

Contrary to what is usually thought and thanks to the means mentioned in the previous point, e-learning enhances communication between all course participants, both between teacher and student and between students themselves, thus also enhancing a much more social experience and therefore a collaborative learning that enriches the process.

Sensation in the student

The previous section leads us to respond to this point almost categorically: conventional distance learning encouraged the student to feel alone in his process and, if he did not have sufficient organization, formative need and/or willpower, he would end up abandoning the course before finishing it.

On the other hand, e-learning, through collaborative learning and continuous communication between teacher – student and between equals, favours that the student feels accompanied, guided and wrapped up.

Type of learning that favors

Therefore, from the previous points it can be inferred that conventional distance learning favoured individual, linear and directed learning, in which the student had to make an extra effort to ensure that his learning was focused on his own needs and therefore significant.

On the other hand, as we have seen, quality e-learning (in which the content is not “coffee for everyone”) favours collaborative and meaningful learning by itself, avoiding abandonment on the part of the student before finishing it.

As we have seen, although both modalities offer obvious similarities regarding the place and time of training (teacher and students are not in the same place and time), there are also enormous differences between the two.