In truth, the two terms describe pretty much the same study option, however there are some subtle differences and pros and cons for both. These differences are mostly to do with how the courses are delivered, how much interaction students on these courses have with lecturers and if the individual courses offer any on-campus sessions.
Let’s take a look in more detail.
How long has the course been delivered?
Distance learning for university-level course started in the UK in the late 19th Century, which means that some colleges have been offering postgraduate courses by distance learning for a very long time. There is some correlation between how long an institution has been delivering courses online and the terminology they use using to describe all courses that they offer off-campus, for example, the University of Birmingham describes many of their off-campus courses as distance learning but still uses the terminology of online. Whereas the University of Edinburgh describes similar courses as online learning and the University of Sunderland uses both terms. However, if you look a bit more in-depth you will find that most universities use both online and distance learning terms and it's often the tradition of the institutions that results in the use of the terms. As this table illustrates, different universities describe their off-campus courses as either online, distance learning, or in the case of the University of Birmingham the University of Sunderland, both!
How is the course delivered?
One difference between courses that are described as distance learning and those that are described as being online is the way the courses are delivered. A distance learning course will usually have more independent study than a course describing itself as online learning. This is because online postgraduate courses usually involve lectures or tutorials delivered by online video conferencing. With a distance learning postgraduate course, the lectures may be pre-recorded and reading materials are provided in addition to the lectures. Both will have online forums for students to discuss course-related topics and distance learning courses do often feature interaction with lecturers in online forums as well.
Do you need to attend campus?
The answer to whether you will need to attend a university campus or not is very much course dependant and occasionally yes for both online learning and distance learning. Generally, a distance learning course will include a summer school or on-campus session at some point during the program. This is often used to mitigate the reduced contact with lecturers during term time. An online course can also have facilities in video conferencing suites where the students are on-campus, but the lecturer and perhaps other students are not, but they tend to be less likely to have a summer school.
What about flexible learning?
Another term that is heard with distance learning and online learning is flexible learning. Postgraduate courses that describe themselves as being on a flexible learning basis mean that students can study part-time periodically over up to five or six years.
What is blended learning?
Many online courses describe themselves as blended learning courses and this means that they use both live lectures by online video conferencing and online discussion forums. This makes these courses more similar to a distance learning course than a traditional online learning course.