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

At the Georgia Tech OMSCS, we talk a lot about how our program is the first of its kind. The homepage for the OMSCS states, “the first accredited Master of Science in Computer Science that students can earn exclusively through the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery format and for a fraction of the cost of traditional, on-campus programs.”

However, that description might not be entirely accurate. Georgia Tech OMS courses are neither massive (although they’re getting there) nor open (admission is still required). At the same time, the OMSCS is far from the only online Masters offered at Georgia Tech. So is all the hype just hype?

In my opinion, this speaks to the difference between distance learning and online learning, and the difference is critical. Distance learning has been around for ages through correspondence programs and other similar structures. Some of them are very good. Most online Masters programs today are simple extensions of distance learning programs. In previous years, one would receive course materials in the mail, and mail completed schoolwork back; now, students receive course materials over the internet, and upload completed assignments back. The internet makes distance learning easier, and at times can improve the experience through features like forums, but it does not inherently fundamentally change its structure.

The majority of online Masters programs are distance learning programs of this kind. With Georgia Tech’s online Masters programs, students in the distance learning sections view live or filmed lectures, upload the same assignments, and are graded by the same TAs. The only major difference is geographic: rather than being physically in the room of the lecture, the students are distributed. This is, in my mind, the heart of the distinction between distance learning and online learning: distance learning as nearly as possible identically recreates the in-person process. It may use the internet to do so, but the fundamental structure between distance learning and in-person learning remains the same.

Online learning, on the other hand, aims to leverage the internet not to duplicate the in-person experience, but rather to improve it. Improvement, of course, can come in many ways. Online education can be developed to reduce costs by leveraging MOOC principles, and in fact, this is one of the general guiding principles of the OMSCS: leveraging the internet to deliver an experience that is just as good as the in-person experience at a fraction of the cost. Online learning does not stop there, though. Automated feedback, communities of practice, and several other pedagogical techniques find unique places in the online medium. I’ve talked about a few of these unique benefits in the past, like the ability to transfer course ownership to the students and the natural emphasis on positive activity rather than negative, and I believe we’re only scratching the surface of the ways in which online education can actually improve on the in-person classroom experience.

I, of course, can be accused of bias in that, as an instructor and developer of the Georgia Tech OMS, I want to see it succeed. However, the inverse is true: I work on the Georgia Tech OMS because I believe it will succeed. I’m excited to work on it because while most programs out there are using the internet to improve on distance learning, the Georgia Tech OMS is about using the internet to create new and improved educational experiences altogether. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with distance learning, and it presents some very rich opportunities of its own. Distance learning is all about increasing access to the same quality education, and that is an incredibly important. I’m excited, though, to work on online learning and find ways to use the internet to make higher education more affordable, more accessible, and more effective.

So, if you’re ever asked why we ballyhoo the Georgia Tech OMS so much when online programs, even from highly reputable universities, are becoming common, the reason is that the OMS is about online learning, not distance learning. It’s very different, and it may lead to great things.

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