Traditional Learning Versus Distance Learning: A Comparison

Aug 12, 2018

Traditional on-campus classroom environments have been the dominant educational technique for generations. However, with the advent and evolution of the Internet and other information technologies, online or distance learning is becoming more and more popular. Both traditional and distance learning programs can provide quality education.

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Traditional vs. Distance Learning

When choosing between traditional and distance learning programs, it can be helpful to consider course material delivery methods, program pacing options, course formats, technical requirements, and cost. Here are some of the important things to think about when comparing traditional and distance learning programs.

Course Material Delivery

Traditional learning programs utilize the long-established technique of on-campus classroom meetings for delivering course information and facilitating student conversation and debate. Students meet at an assigned time and place to partake in class lectures, labs, study groups, and exams. Traditional learning environments are more structured than distance learning programs and provide face-to-face contact with fellow students and professors.

At its inception over 100 years ago, distance learning utilized the United States Post Office to deliver course materials and exams for what were then called correspondence courses. Today, distance learning, eLearning, and online programs use various forms of media, information technology, and the Internet to deliver course materials.

In web-based distance learning programs, students and instructors typically communicate with each other by means of email, message boards, and chat rooms. There are a wide range of course material distribution methods, but they can include webinars, live streaming lectures, recorded (asynchronous) lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and content management systems.

Program Pacing

Some online distance programs allow students to view lectures and take exams at their convenience. Given the chance to study at their own pace, some students may complete a degree program faster online than they would in a traditional setting. On the other hand, if they have full-time work or other scheduling commitments, it may take them longer than it would in a traditional setting. Alternatively, there are distance programs that have real-time lectures at set times, with assignment and exam deadlines.

Fully Online and Hybrid Programs

While some distance learning programs are available entirely online, there are others that have in-person requirements. For instance, online students may need to complete internships or fulfill laboratory requirements at approved sites near their homes. There are also online programs that require one or more short, on-campus residencies prior to graduation.

Technical Requirements

While traditional on-campus programs may require students to own their own computer and software, distance learning programs may require additional technology to support online learning. Usually, schools offering online programs post the hardware and software requirements on their websites. Common necessities include:

  • High-speed Internet access
  • Ability to email
  • Office software programs
  • Anti-virus software
  • Subject-specific software programs
  • Web camera
  • Headset


Distance learning can sometimes be less expensive than traditional courses. Since courses are typically taken online, state residency restrictions may not influence tuition rates, although this is not the case for all schools. Course materials made available online may alleviate the cost of textbooks. Some schools may offer tuition or fee discounts for their online distance programs not available for on-campus programs. Distance learners may also save on transportation and/or room and board costs for on-campus residency. In general, whether or not students save on online learning generally varies based on the program and the student's personal situation.

There are a variety of factors to consider when choosing between distance learning and traditional education programs, each with associated advantages and disadvantages. Prospective students choose between programs based on their personal preferences.

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