What Is Distance Learning: And Is It For You?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn why distance learning is a flexible and convenient way to study anytime, anywhere, for a wide range or qualifications with this guide from Coursera.

[Featured image] Distance learner participates in an online course from a home computer

Distance learning, or e-learning, is a process of education in which students learn at least in part through electronic media, such as the internet, video conferencing, and webinars. Distance learning may be synchronous, if all participants are interacting at the same time, or asynchronous, where the participants engage with the learning materials at different times.

What exactly is distance learning?

The concept of distance learning is not new. For years, computer-based courses or courses by satellite have been available to complement traditional classroom courses; or to offer an alternative. However, these materials and programmes have historically been considered lower quality than the traditional classroom format. 

In recent years, this has changed with the advent of high-speed networks and access to higher education on a global scale. This revolution in information technology has enabled the delivery of virtual classrooms in which students connect with each other and with faculty independent of time or place. Thousands of students are now taking online courses and distance education courses over the internet. 

Distance learning might be an option for you if you want to continue your education and complete a degree programme, but:

  • Can't leave home

  • Are currently working and need to balance your studies with work responsibilities

  • Or simply desire the flexibility of learning at home and on your schedule

What's the difference between online learning and distance learning? 

Online learning and distance learning are often used interchangeably. However, they have slightly different definitions. 

  • Distance learning generally refers to a pedagogic model that offers some or all of its classes through a virtual platform, delivered via the internet.

  • Online learning is a type of distance learning, and refers to the delivery of educational content through the Internet, with no need for face-to-face interaction. 

Types of distance learning: synchronous vs asynchronous learning

In both synchronous and asynchronous distance learning, content is designed and delivered online; however, students experience these delivery methods in different ways.  

  • Synchronous learning, or lecture-based distance learning, is a technology-supported method of instruction that involves real-time interaction between and among the teacher, students, and course content. In this format, the class meets in one virtual place at the same time. Students can interact with each other and with the instructor, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and share thoughts on the topics that they're studying. 

  • Asynchronous learning often involves group discussion via email or a discussion board, with the instructor posting content such as documents, videos or journals on a course website that can be accessed by the group at their leisure. This learning model is not based on real-time interactions and a classroom model.

Methods of distance learning 

Distance learning represents a wide range of educational opportunities, including video conferencing, hybrid distance education, open schedule online courses, and fixed time online courses.

  • Video conferencing is a technology that uses a video camera or webcam to transmit your image over an existing data network or wireless network. You can talk with tutors, form study groups, and participate in lectures over video conferencing.

  • Hybrid distance education involves a blend of online and residential sessions, as well as face-to-face sessions in virtual learning centres that reduce travel time and cost. Some UK universities are partnered with universities in the US, Australia, and around the world, facilitating resource sharing and satellite learning.

  • An open schedule online course does not always follow a set schedule, but you generally have to watch your lectures on a specific day. 

  • A fixed-time online course follows a set schedule for classes, exams, and so on. 

The variety of distance teaching methods used nowadays makes it easy for students to stay in the comfort of their own homes and build their knowledge and skills.

Distance learning resources you might expect

Every distance learning course is different and the resources available can vary.

This distance learning course offers you: 

  • Online textbooks

  • Email correspondence

  • Screen recorded videos

  • Voice over slideshow lectures and classes

  • Scheduled online chats with lectures and tutors

  • Physical textbooks

  • Chat rooms

Is distance learning right for you?

In today's fast-paced world, students are challenged by a myriad of demands on their time. Distance learning is an ideal solution to accommodate both work and school schedules, to balance families and careers, to pursue new interests, and even to work abroad. 

The biggest advantages of distance learning include flexibility, convenience, and affordability.

Taking classes online can be a great way to improve your career prospects and build your competency base. It combines the best of both worlds—the flexibility of online and the support of face-to-face learning.

Here are some of the reasons students choose distance education:

  • Because of the dynamic learning model, you decide how quickly or slowly to complete your course. 

  • Because the courses have been created by industry experts, you have a huge support network behind you. 

  • Having the flexibility of learning at home allows you time to perform other work-related tasks or look after children. 

  • The course can be completed in a more cost-efficient manner.

How do I find and choose the right distance learning course?

Picking the right course is just as important as choosing the right university. With thousands of distance learning courses and universities around the world, choosing can be a daunting task. 

There are many things to consider when choosing a  university, including:

  • Online reviews and reputation

  • Accreditations

  • Accessibility

  • Course cost

  • Course delivery methods

You can explore online degrees and master’s degrees here

How will a distance learning course help you achieve your career goals?

Distance and self-learning systems are a revolutionary way to advance your career. Study online to prepare for certification exams, gain new skills, and move up positions within your company. 

Distance learning courses help you rapidly advance your career by providing versatile learning tools that enable you to build up skills, achieve new certificates, and grow your confidence.

Which UK universities offer distance learning?

With almost all UK universities offering online study, including leading global institutions such as University College London, there are some fantastic opportunities available to you.

To find a programme that is right for you, first think about what your goals are:


  • Are you looking to obtain a better job? 

  • Earn a promotion? 

  • Start your own business? 

  • Advance in your current career? 

There are literally thousands of distance learning programs available to help you achieve your goals—whether your interests lie in business, health and wellness, IT, languages, or any other subject. 

Next, decide how long you want to complete the programme – some short courses can be completed in just two weeks! Finally, evaluate the cost and accreditation of the programme you are considering.

Online masters degrees

Online master's degrees are a step up from the bachelor's degree, meaning you'll learn more in greater depth, while the subjects you focus on will tend to be more specific. Many people choose to go on to do a master's degree so they can get a better job, with bigger pay packets and higher levels of responsibility.

Cutting-edge, flexible, and accredited online master's degrees bring together the best of learning across a range of subjects to provide you with the skills and knowledge for a successful career.

Online PhD

A PhD in the UK could make all the difference to your career. Gain online research opportunities and a world-class education with an online British postgraduate research qualification. PhD students and post-doctoral researchers have the chance to study, undertake research and gain skills in environments offering excellent facilities, a fascinating range of research, and access to leading academics in their field.

How do you apply?

Not all distance learning courses take the same approach to enrollment, so when you are applying it is important to read the application requirements carefully. For the most part, you can apply online if you meet the minimum requirements for application. Online degree programmes have experienced rapid growth. Many online degrees are also offered as ‘open’ programmes. This allows anyone to enroll regardless of previous qualifications.

Take a look at degrees being offered by some of the top UK and European universities. You normally have to apply for full-time online degree programmes through UCAS, just as you would a traditional degree. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.