What is distance learning?

Discover what distance learning is, how it works, and how to make the most of it.

What is distance learning?

Put simply, distance learning is education taught remotely, without a physical classroom. Historically, the term distance learning mostly related to college programs that allowed students to study remotely. Now, distance learning applies not only to students at a college-level, but elementary, middle school, and high school, too.

Types of distance learning

There are a few different ways distance learning can be done:

Video conferencing

The most common format, with classes and lectures presented over a conference call or webinar through Zoom. In some cases, these classes will have one educator leading the lesson while another is on hand to answer questions and monitor the students.

This allows for direct interaction between student and teacher, making it the type of distance learning that most closely resembles the traditional classroom setting.

Asynchronous learning

In asynchronous learning, students are encouraged to work autonomously. There are no group lessons, only weekly tasks and deadlines to be completed individually. This self-study method offers flexibility to students to figure out their own structure and schedule, but offers far less group interaction and direct communication with the teacher.


Open-schedule courses are similar to asynchronous learning courses, only with even less restriction. Open-schedule courses don’t have weekly deadlines, allowing students to do things in their own time and better balance their extra-curricular commitments. This is a favorable option for full-time workers, parents, or anyone who wants to study but can’t fit traditional courses into their schedules.

Every institution will have its own method and structure for remote education that will likely fit into one of those categories, or be a hybrid of a few different types. Asynchronous and open-schedule education is more common for higher education courses.

Advantages of distance learning

Open-schedule courses allow for a lot more flexibility, not just in terms of where you study, but also when you study, making distance learning beneficial for those who will be working full time during their studies. For many, the ability to continue full time work alongside distance learning could be what enables study to be an affordable option.

In terms of costs, distance learning courses tend to be cheaper than campus-based courses, as they require fewer resources and infrastructure.

Distance learning courses sometimes offer students opportunities to pursue subjects or qualifications that may not be available locally, as you can study courses from colleges anywhere in the world without needing to leave home.

Disadvantages of distance learning

It’s important to consider every learning style when thinking about effective distance learning. There are visual learners, auditory learners, verbal learners, physical learners, logical learners, social learners, and solitary learners.

Educators must ensure that they cater to each personal learning style while guiding the class as a whole. This is achievable in the classroom, but when distance learning, it can be difficult to encourage physical and social learners. Without the right tools, collaborative learning can be limited too.

Discipline can become an issue for educators when distance learning. The same mischief you’d expect in a classroom, you should expect on a conference call, only it’s harder to keep under control from afar.

With students at home, they might be surrounded by more distractions than they would be at school. Chatter among students during a lesson might be harder to monitor and prevent too, considering it’s probably not happening out loud.

For students, it may be difficult to adjust to the new structure, and it can be easy to feel isolated and lost without much direct engagement with their teachers and classmates. Mental health is a big concern for distance learning; interaction and engagement are essential for young peoples’ development, and distance learning can feel like a barricade.

Distance learning tips for students:

  • Set a schedule and stick to it. An advantage of distance education is that oftentimes you can decide when and where you study, but this can be detrimental if you don’t maintain a consistent timetable. Set aside certain hours and stick to them as much as you can. If you don’t have a set schedule, you can very quickly lose focus and motivation.
  • Dedicate a space for study. If possible, designate space in your home for study, separate from living areas. This makes it easier to keep work and play separate, so you know that when you’re in that space, you’re in “the classroom” and should treat it as such.
  • Get ready for the day ahead. Get ready in the morning just like you would when going to school. You won’t be able to get into the school mentality if you stay in your PJs all day. A good morning routine sets the day up for success.
  • Get to know the tools. You don’t want to fall behind because of technical difficulties, so make sure you take time ahead of online classes to familiarize yourself with the technology.
  • Take a breather. When you make your own schedule, make sure to include breaks. Continuous study for hours on end can be counterintuitive, you need to give yourself time to digest what you’ve learned.
  • Keep yourself in the loop. Unlike in a classroom, you won’t have a tutor in front of you to remind you of upcoming due dates or assessments. With a distance learning program, it’s mostly up to you to make sure you’re staying on top of your assignments. Make sure you have a reliable calendar and set reminders to keep track of what needs to be done.
  • Stay connected with your classmates. If your virtual classes don’t offer much interaction, consider forming a study group so you can stay in touch with your classmates and make sure you’re all on the right track. Take advantage of collaborative learning tools like Dropbox Paper to easily share notes, project files, and other coursework, and strengthen group communication.

Distance learning tips for educators:

  • Make educational technology your assistant. Shifting to teaching online is intimidating, but you’ll quickly gain the upper hand if you get to know the digital landscape. Take advantage of the many apps, tools, and services designed to assist online learning.
  • Encourage collaboration. Think outside the box to devise collaborative projects that facilitate social learning. Use online tools like Dropbox Paper to allow for easy group collaboration and feedback.
  • Engage with your students. If you can, engage with each student directly. Of course, that’ll be difficult if you’re teaching a larger class than usual, but if you can do so, then one-on-one interactions will keep them motivated and will help you identify personal challenges. Where face-to-face isn’t possible, be sure to communicate with your students by email or instant message and remind them you’re available to offer one-on-one advice.
  • Give feedback regularly. Feedback helps motivate students and helps them recognize areas of strength and weakness, facilitating growth and development. This is especially crucial in remote learning where students might feel quite isolated and left in the dark about their progress and performance.
  • Reflect with other teachers. Just like parents should talk to other parents and students should talk to other students, teachers should talk to other teachers and share their experiences, advice, and worries.
  • Be consistent. Once you’ve found a system that works, stick with it, and aim to always be consistent in the tools you use and your lesson plans. Virtual learning might seem chaotic at first, but maintaining a consistency will help normalize the situation for students and get them in the right mindset.
  • Ask for feedback. As important as it is to give feedback, it’s equally important that you receive feedback, especially when trialing a new system. In order to know what will and won’t work for your pupils, you’ll need to get honest feedback about how they feel about the tools you use and if they’re benefiting.

There are all sorts of quirks and consequences that are difficult to anticipate as distance learning continues to develop. Are we approaching a future where home learning is so reliable that snow days are no more? Are digital dioramas the future of science projects? Time will tell how the format evolves; but if you continue to heed the advice above, you’ll find yourself adapting with ease.