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What is distance learning?

Curious about distance learning but not entirely sure what it involves? Find out everything you need to know in our one-stop guide.

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Distance learning offers learners a huge range of benefits, including greater access to degree-level qualifications. If you’re thinking about joining a distance learning course but you’re not sure if it’s right for you, the information in this guide should help you decide. 

We’ll explore what distance learning is, how it can help you achieve your goals and what you can expect from a distance learning course.

What is distance learning?

Put simply, distance learning is any kind of learning that occurs when learners are ‘at a distance’ from the person, organisation or institution teaching the material. Let’s dive a little deeper to find out more. 

Distance learning: a short history

You might be surprised to hear that distance learning has been around for quite some time. 

In the 1840s, British educator Sir Isaac Pitman created the first distance education course. He taught a system of shorthand to students all over England by exchanging transcriptions with them in the post.

The University of London claims to be the first university to have offered distance learning degrees. In 1858, it committed to administering exams for students who took correspondence courses. In 1894, the UK’s first distance-learning college – Wolsey Hall in Oxford – opened. 

The inception of the Open University in 1969 represented a significant milestone in the evolution of distance learning in the 20th century. The Open University offered degree-level qualifications to learners via correspondence courses. 

As technological advances ramped up in the 21st century, a significant amount of distance learning moved online. Teachers and learners were able to use digital communication tools like Zoom to interact virtually. Meanwhile, the creation of online learning platforms like FutureLearn supported course delivery and participation.

Today, online learning is considered to be part of ‘the new normal’ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our 2022 ‘Future of Learning’ report, we found that 33% of survey participants would choose online platforms to learn new skills. Meanwhile, 81% who changed careers since the pandemic said that an online course helped them to do so.

Is distance learning different from online learning?

While the majority of conversations about ‘distance learning’ today tend to relate to learning supported by technology, there is a subtle but important difference between the concepts of distance learning and online learning.

Distance learning can be delivered and performed through a variety of physical and digital channels, including mailed correspondence, email, instant messaging and video streaming. Online learning, on the other hand, refers only to learning that’s conducted via the internet. 

Ultimately, online learning is a form of distance learning.

Are distance learning courses recognised? 

Although online learning is more prevalent today, you might be wondering if a qualification achieved through distance learning will garner the same recognition as an equivalent qualification awarded by a brick-and-mortar learning institution.

Our research indicates that since the COVID-19 pandemic, 75% of employers are more likely to hire applicants with online education. Meanwhile, 44% of managers perceive online education as ‘very’ to ‘extremely’ valuable during the interview process. 

Many courses delivered through online learning platforms are taught and administered by leading institutions. Other distance learning courses offer partial accreditation that can count towards a qualification from a specific college or university. 

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How does distance learning work?

The way in which distance learning works depends largely on the course and provider. Today, many distance learning courses are conducted mostly – or entirely – online. This means that learning is likely to involve one or more of the following activities:

  • Watching pre-recorded videos
  • Attending live online lectures
  • Participating in live online discussions with tutors and/or fellow learners
  • Having one-to-one discussions online with your tutor 
  • Exchanging emails and instant messages with your tutor and/or fellow learners
  • Completing digital tests or assessments and submitting them online
  • Completing written assignments and submitting them online 

Distance learning courses with a correspondence element will include one or more of the following: 

  • Reviewing course material sent in the post
  • Completing written tests or assessments and submitting them to your tutor in the post
  • Writing essays or other assignments and submitting them to your tutor in the post

Some distance learning courses will involve a combination of all of these activities. 

What are the benefits of distance learning? 

Distance learning offers learners a vast range of benefits. Here are just a few:


Many distance learning courses allow you to learn at your own pace; you can access the material when it’s convenient for you to do so and learn whenever your schedule allows. While some courses have defined term times and course delivery dates, you have the flexibility to participate from any location where you have an internet connection. 

Access to learning opportunities

From course content to duration and learning level, there’s a huge variety of distance learning courses available. You can even take an undergraduate degree or master’s degree course through a distance learning provider like FutureLearn. Attending a brick-and-mortar university isn’t right for everyone, so distance learning opens up the possibility of degree-level learning to a broader audience. 

With distance learning, you can choose your course and provider without being restricted by location. And with no travel to take into account, it can be easier to fit learning into a demanding work or life schedule. 


Distance learning doesn’t require you to pay for travel or move to another location. This can make a particularly big difference if you’re considering the total financial cost of an undergraduate degree, which lasts three or four years. 

The chance to upskill

If you’re interested in upskilling to improve your career prospects, distance learning is an efficient and effective way of doing so. There are many distance learning courses that require a minimal time investment, allowing you to fit upskilling activities around a full-time job or other commitments. 

The opportunity to build transferable skills 

Distance learning supports the development of an array of valuable transferable skills. These include working independently, using technology effectively and navigating the challenges and opportunities of a remote work environment. 

These skills are not only valuable to current and future employers; they’re likely to stand you in good stead if you ever become self-employed.

Is distance learning effective? 

Since the pandemic, the concept of learning and working remotely has largely been normalised. But with in-person learning now back in action, you might be wondering whether distance learning can truly be an effective alternative. 

This is by no means a new question. In 1999, psychologist Thomas L. Russell conducted an analysis of over 300 reports and studies to compare the outcomes of distance learning against those of classroom-based learning. These outcomes included learners’ achievement, attitude and satisfaction. 

The key finding was that there was no statistically significant difference between the educational outcomes of the two learning methods. Russell dubbed this the ‘No Significant Difference Phenomenon’. Many subsequent studies have reached a similar conclusion. 

While every distance learning course – and every distance learner – is unique, this body of research indicates that distance learning can indeed be effective.  

How to get started with distance learning

One of the many benefits of distance learning is the vast amount of choice for learners. From course content and qualifications to methods of learning and course providers, there’s a lot to think about. Here’s our advice if you’re unsure how to get started.

Choosing your distance learning course

While the prospect of digging into all the options might feel a little intimidating, it’s important to do some research before investing your time and – in some cases – money into distance learning. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What do you want to learn about and why?
  • Are you seeking to gain a particular qualification or credit towards one?
  • How much time do you have available for learning? 
  • How much money are you prepared to invest in a distance learning course?
  • What is your preferred learning style?
  • How much interaction would you like with your tutor?
  • How much interaction would you like with fellow learners?
  • What is your financial budget for distance learning? 

Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on these questions, it should be a little easier to narrow down your options. Take the time to read through course descriptions and any reviews from former learners carefully. Make sure you’re clear about the following details:

  • The institution or company providing the course
  • The qualification or credit you’ll achieve upon successful completion
  • If relevant, the professional body accrediting the course. This is particularly important if your course leads to a particular profession, like accounting or engineering. Many of the online psychology degrees available through FutureLearn are accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS), for example. 

It’s also important to establish how the course will be taught and what will be expected of you as a learner. Taking the time to establish all this information upfront will help to lay the foundation for a successful distance learning experience. 

How to prepare for a distance learning course

Once you’ve joined a course, there are a few things you can do to prepare. For degrees, there might be some recommended reading to do in advance of the course start date. There may also be books or other material that you need to source.

Make a note of your course start date and ensure that you have some time earmarked to begin your learning. For live courses, this time will be set by your course tutor. For courses where the material is available for you to access at any time, it will be up to you. If submitting assignments is part of your course, make a note of any deadlines you will need to meet. 

When it’s time for the course to start, make sure that you’re available to focus fully on your learning. This might mean organising childcare or arranging time away from a full-time job. If you’re engaging in online learning, ensure you have a strong internet signal and a reliable device that you can use to access the course content.

If you’re getting ready to take an undergraduate degree through distance learning, we have some specific tips for you in our article on how to prepare for an online degree

Is distance learning right for you?

So now you know more about distance learning, it’s time to consider the ultimate question: is it right for you? In truth, only you will know the answer. If you’re a proactive and independent learner and want to benefit from the many benefits of distance learning, it could certainly be worth investigating further. 

Distance learning has the potential to transform learners’ lives. It also creates opportunities for learners to achieve career-defining qualifications, including undergraduate and master’s degrees. 
Ready to begin your distance learning journey with FutureLearn? Take a look at our wide range of online degrees created by top universities. 

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