E-Learning and Distance Education Differences

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Distance education and e-learning provide viable educational alternatives for busy adult learners. While the two terms often seem interchangeable and possess some similarities, they also have strategic although subtle differences. E-learning is distance education in a broad sense, but distance education is not necessarily e-learning. Various distance education programs may require internet use for online exams or to review grades, yet many operate strictly on a correspondence basis. E-learning programs, as the name implies, incorporate electronic or instructional technology. While some may require textbooks, e-learning programs typically function fully online.

Distance Education

Distance education originally began in the form of the earliest correspondence schools in the late 1890s and grew in popularity over the next few decades. However, around 1950, speculation among educators cast doubt on the legitimacy of correspondence programs and distance education stalled while researchers studied its feasibility. Distance education via correspondence programs saw resurgence in the early 1970s and progressed from that point as a viable option for students unable to attend traditional classes. Individual courses, as well as limited degree programs, made pursuit of higher education more affordable and convenient for adult learners. The latter decade of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century saw improved options for distance education, including a combination of correspondence and online learning. [Reference: Brief History of Distance Education]

Correspondence programs typically offer self-paced programs using textbooks or workbooks. Some schools may require students to mail in completed work, but a growing number of schools now offer online options to submit work, take exams, and review grades. Either way, pursuing a degree through distance education provides a convenient, flexible, low-stress means to accomplish your academic goals.

A Word About Accreditation

**Important Note** Do research into any distance education program or e-learning institution to ascertain its accreditation status. If you want your credits and/or degree to be worth the time and money you put into them, valid accreditation is a crucial consideration. Discuss your questions and concerns with a representative of the program or school before enrolling.


Instead of, or in addition to, correspondence-style distance education programs, e-learning (electronic learning) is a relatively new educational alternative, thanks to our technological age. Students and busy adult learners no longer have to find the time to travel to campuses and attend classes on designated days and at specific times, in traditional “brick and mortar” classrooms. Instead, learners can fit their studies and educational goals around their lifestyles, rather than the other way around. This represents a savings not only in time, but also in the expenses associated with traveling to, or living on campus.

E-learning provides students with convenience and flexibility not found in traditional school programs. While some programs may require textbooks, many institutions provide online versions of textbooks as well as all other necessary learning materials, study aids, and even virtual libraries. In addition, students typically have access to asynchronous discussion boards, synchronous live chat options, recorded lectures, and other virtual opportunities to interact with instructors and fellow classmates. Some live sessions require virtual attendance on specific days and times, and assignments have mandatory due dates, but everything else is available any time of day or night for ultimate convenience in planning your studying and schoolwork schedule.

Examples of Distance Education and E-Learning Programs

A couple examples of popular, low-cost distance education programs include the following:

  • Ashworth College: offers over 100 programs including career diplomas, undergraduate and graduate certificates, and degree programs at associate, bachelor, and master levels in a variety of fields.
  • Penn Foster Career School: offers over 80 programs including career diplomas and certificates, and associate and bachelor degree programs primarily in business, education, health, and technology.

A couple examples of popular e-learning/online institutions offering fully online programs include the following:

  • American Intercontinental University: offers dozens of associate, bachelor, and master degree programs across a wide variety of professional career fields.
  • University of Phoenix: offers over 100 associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral level degree programs across a range of academic and “in-demand” career fields.