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NEW! Squads After School for ages 7-17.

Our summer season has come to a close, but tech learning and fun don't have to end here. Register today for fall online courses!

Online learning vs. different types of online education—are we talking about the same thing?

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Being stuck inside with your kids 24/7 has certainly opened your eyes to a lot of things, but one specific thing you’ve probably noticed is all of the different types of “learning” everyone seems to be talking about these days. 

For instance: 

  • Online learning, which seems straightforward on the surface
  • Virtual learning, which sounds an awful lot like online learning
  • eLearning, which, actually, wait a second here…
  • Remote learning, oh no, please stop
  • Distance learning, what the…
  • On-demand learning *deep breath*

I live this stuff everyday, and it’s still a bit much! I can only imagine everything that might be going through the head of every other parent out there trying to navigate the online learning landscape. 

I'm going to try and clear things up, but be warned—there is overlap between all of the above, and different people apply different definitions to each. Nothing is clear cut. (I’m not sure if that helps or hinders things, but there you go.)

So, I don’t have 100% factual answers for you in terms of what the actual difference is between this variety of learning options. Some comparisons are certainly more black and white than others, but still. 

What we do know is that most of these options revolve around the use of technology as a main conduit between “teacher” and student. 

Given that, here are my opinions and some guiding statements, with a few facts sprinkled in, all of which is mostly based on what we offer here at iD Tech between our virtual after-school programs and online private tutoring lessons, and what I’ve seen around the web from others. 

And rather than simply define each, I thought it might be useful to present a particular facet and then describe how each of these different learning opportunities approaches/handles it. 

Education & online learning types

Again, these are not "book" definitions by any stretch of the imagination, but are cobbled together based on what I've seen recently. 

Online learning

Definition

Education that takes place online or via an app; broad term. 

Examples

Probably the overarching umbrella term that covers any and all websites, apps, or learning platforms on or through which a student can learn.

For instance, BrainPop and Code.org as online learning portals, Duolingo as a learning app, our Online Private Lessons as more of an online tutoring session for kids, etc. 

Virtual learning

Definition

Similar to online learning, but perhaps a bit more formal, and incorporating internal software platforms/portals. With virtual learning, you are taking an in-person element and making it available online. 

Examples

A key differentiator here may be the fact that virtual learning is taking an in-person element and putting it online. Or, taking something that was originally built to be an in-person experience and putting it online. 

Meaning, sites like ABCMouse.com were built with the goal of being a pure online destination. Yes there is learning, yes the environment models a classroom, but getting kids to learn online has been the primary purpose. 

On the other hand, look at our Virtual Tech Camps. They are taking elements of the in-person summer camp experience, and putting them online for kids to enjoy and benefit from. This means the instruction and student interaction that would normally take place physically at camp is now “picked up and moved to” an online learning platform.  Same goes for a virtual after-school program, and even virtual tutoring

eLearning

Definition

Probably your typical online learning platform that offers self-paced activities and games for kids to click through.

Examples

Using the example above, ABCMouse.com wouldn’t be considered “virtual learning” but would definitely fall more in the bucket of “eLearning” and could be considered a provider of online learning tools for kids.  I’d also consider code.org to be an eLearning portal. 

Remote learning

Definition

Perhaps less applicable to kids and school? Traditionally more of a corporate training method. Either way, a more formal learning program implemented by organizations and educational institutions. Less available to the general public and used more to describe singular programs reserved for a specific organization’s members. 

Examples

As mentioned in the definition above, you typically see “remote learning” attached to corporate training methods, and less with kids and online learning. 

So, imagine a sales organization with teams of reps across the country. With remote learning, all can access online training and materials, regardless of physical location. 

Distance learning

Definition

Most similar to remote learning; or at least Google seems to closely connect the two as synonyms. Doesn’t mean they are the same, but just an observation. Distance learning does seem to describe more of a “separation” between teacher and student in terms of when and how often they interact. 

Examples

I think if you were to ask people about distance learning before the COVID-19 arrival, you’d probably understand it to be a synonym with remote learning. 

But now, we’ve all grown accustomed to “distance learning” being used when referring to the different programs schools are rolling out to their students. These programs can include online resources and assignments, or even non-digital instruction. 

On-demand learning

Definition

As in “right now.” Some online learning can be on-demand, but not all. For instance, you might have to schedule an online learning session a week out or a day in advance, where a true on-demand product, say, like your cable streaming can be more “click and you’re off.”

Examples

You can say on-demand learning is closest to online learning in the way of it not being attached or run through an organization or educational institution, and is instead available for the general public to build skills wherever they please. 

Given that, one person can say most informational sources on the internet can provide on-demand learning, or the YouTube video you pull up right now to watch and learn how to make an obby in Roblox could be considered on-demand. 

On the other hand, to tighten things up a bit, on-demand learning should probably be attached to a particular product or “extra” service that one registers for and/or subscribes to. 

Think of it like your cable, where movies and shows can be accessed “on-demand.” Yes you can tune into any channel to watch TV live, or you can select the exact show you want and have complete control of the playback “on demand.”

To apply that to learning, there are a number of on-demand tutoring sites and apps, to where, say, your child is stuck on a problem or topic, can get in touch with a real person right then and there who can help them though it. 

To try and formulate what this all means, here are a few examples of how online learning types are being rolled out and presented. Online learning:

So...who cares?

A great question, and maybe one I should have asked and answered earlier. Maybe nobody really does, and my need to write about it was simply a product of observation. 

But I guess a big takeaway is, look at how much confusion and overlap there is over what maybe should just be a group of simple straightforward terms.

So if anything, all of this just further demonstrates that what we are dealing with right now is unprecedented. And while we need to be able to write and talk about the current state of affairs, the choice in doing so is between using existing terms to describe the new, or coming up with something new entirely. 

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Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!