Outside the Classroom

Examining the Difference Between Distance, Remote, and Online Learning

Distance learning, emergency learning, remote learning, and online learning—at this point, you’ve heard it all. And no matter what you call it, it’s safe to say that it hasn’t been easy to teach (or to learn!) over the past year.

Is there a meaningful difference between these terms, and if so, how does that difference impact the experience of teaching and learning? We now know that the past year has resulted in significant learning loss, particularly for already vulnerable students, so this distinction is an important one for everyone to understand as the learning process continues to be disrupted due to the pandemic.

Let’s start by taking a look at the timeline of education in 2020.

After starting out like any other year, everything changed in March when schools closed in response to the pandemic. This forced educators to quickly put together plans so students could continue learning and finish the school year, and it was understood that everyone was doing the best they could with what they had during a stressful time. But it wasn’t enough for many students or educators.

The best way to describe this—as many outlets did—is with the term emergency remote teaching or emergency learning. This form of learning was quickly put into place in response to the sudden need to change how instruction was delivered and learning took place. By definition, emergency remote teaching/emergency learning does not allow for time spent preparing or training, and has been used throughout the world in response to other emergencies.

Over the summer, we realized that the pandemic would continue to impact daily life, and as a result, the 2020–2021 school year would not be a traditional one. School and district leaders had to create plans that included opening their doors for at least some students while offering options for those who couldn’t come to school. With this extra planning time—and a few lessons learned from the spring—leaders developed more comprehensive plans that considered their community’s specific needs.

school whiteboard with heart and cursorA good way to describe the learning that would take place in students’ homes at this time is with the phrase distance learning. Many of these plans helped provide devices and Internet access, adapted supports for students with special needs, offered training for educators, and incorporated curriculum as well as teaching and learning resources that support distance learning.

Again, the solution wasn’t perfect, and conditions continued changing, leaving schools, districts, and families little time to adjust. Many students don’t attend every day, and millions of students haven’t attended at all, but it was a lot better than what students experienced in the spring.

“A lot better” is still not good enough, though:

  • In widely reported research, NWEA® found that in grades 3 through 8, student achievement was similar year over year for reading, but 5–10 percentile points lower in math.
  • Renaissance® found that countrywide, students in grades 2 through 8 are anywhere from 4 to 12+ weeks behind in math.
  • And throughout the country, districts of all sizes have seen increases in the number of failed classes as compared to last year.

This is where the idea of online learning—and the difference between distance, remote, and online learning—become important.

mouse and gear iconAccording to an EDUCAUSE Review article, “effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development. The design process and the careful consideration of different design decisions have an impact on the quality of the instruction.”

We know that learning involves more than just curriculum, and that students need access to tools that support their learning, especially those who require accommodations. And educators should have access to training and professional development, as well as resources that support instruction and allow for progress monitoring. And this is all true for both face-to-face and online learning.

Again, from the EDUCAUSE Review article (emphasis ours):

Face-to-face education isn’t successful because lecturing is good. Lectures are one instructional aspect of an overall ecosystem specifically designed to support learners with formal, informal, and social resources. Ultimately, effective online education requires an investment in an ecosystem of learner supports, which take time to identify and build. Relative to other options, simple online content delivery can be quick and inexpensive, but confusing that with robust online education is akin to confusing lectures with the totality of residential education.

The experience many educators and students had last spring was unique, and for many, a bad one. And we know that moving learning outside of the classroom isn’t as simple as a teacher broadcasting a lecture over Zoom. For years, experts have been conducting research into online learning, and educators and leaders have used that research to establish and incorporate best practices so that students who learn online have a positive experience doing so and get a rich, high-quality education that truly moves them forward in their learning.

In true online learning, students and teachers gain more flexibility in and control over the learning process—both of which were critical during the spring’s closures. Many teachers who teach online love it, and many students who learn online gain incredible benefits from adapting their learning experience to better fit their lives.

So how can you establish your own online learning program?

  • Start by choosing an online curriculum provider.
  • Work with them to establish that online learning ecosystem and ensure everyone has reliable access to all of its components.
  • Invest in professional development and training for educators.
  • Set expectations for students and educators, and provide ongoing support.
  • Embrace the benefits of flexibility.
  • Monitor progress and check in with students and staff to assess your program’s health and make adaptations as needed.

Last year was an incredibly challenging one in education, largely because of how much and how often everyone had to pivot without necessarily being equipped to do so. True online learning opens up new possibilities for educators, students, and families that can be critical in ensuring that students can get the educational experience they need to be successful in college and careers.

As Professor Natalie Milman wrote, “It is not the medium that matters but the design of the learning experiences, the quality of the content, and the engagement of learners.” Good information to keep in mind when designing your own online learning program.


Catalano, F. (2020, December 14). Learning loss is everywhere. But how do the reports compare? EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-12-14-learning-loss-is-everywhere-but-how-do-the-reports-compare

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, December 8). COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help. McKinsey & Company Public & Social Sector Insights.https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-learning-loss-disparities-grow-and-students-need-help

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020, March 27). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. EDUCAUSE Review.https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning

Manfuso, L. G. (2020, May 7). From emergency remote teaching to rigorous online learning. EdTech Magazine.https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2020/05/emergency-remote-teaching-rigorous-online-learning-perfcon

Milman, N. B. (2020, March 30). This is emergency remote teaching, not just online teaching. Education Week.https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-this-is-emergency-remote-teaching-not-just-online-teaching/2020/03

Watson, J. (2020, August 26). The pandemic’s threat to the future of digital learning. Digital Learning Collaborative.https://www.digitallearningcollab.com/blog/2020/8/26/the-pandemics-threat-to-the-future-of-digital-learning

About the Author


Weld North Education

Weld North Education is moving learning forward by transforming the way teachers teach and students learn. By harnessing the adaptive power of digital technologies, Weld North Education is creating the future of education for PreK–12 students and educators.