Online training, distance learning, open distance learning, digital learning, MOOC… are some of these terms one and the same? Is one the modern version of the other? Are we dealing with entirely different modalities of learning? It is not easy to find your way around, especially as these concepts continue to evolve and nuances come into play in the way they are used. Without claiming to be exhaustive, let’s try to answer three questions to get a clearer picture.

Why is it more accurate nowadays to talk about elearning or online learning rather than distance learning?

Elearning is the modern version of distance education since it involves a connection to a computer, tablet or smartphone. It is deployed on a learning platform, a website hosting learning content designed to facilitate the deployment of pedagogical strategies. In many cases, it integrates “Web 2.0”, i.e. the techniques, functionalities and uses of the participatory web that allow users to interact with each other and to create or modify content; examples include social networks, sharing platforms and collaborative sites.

It should be noted, however, that some people use the term distance learning to distinguish it from open distance learning. This is the case of Denis Cristol who, in his book “Former, se former et apprendre à l’ère numérique – Le social learning“, states that, compared to distance learning, the open version “is distinguished by the greater autonomy of the learner, who can enter and leave the system, by its flexibility in the autonomous management of his or her time and objectives, and finally by the absence of prerequisites.”

Is digital learning a sub-type of elearning?

The term “digital learning” does not refer to a category of elearning such as MOOC, for example, but rather to the new reality of the world of teaching and learning transformed by digital technologies. And this new reality is not limited to elearning since these technologies have also entered the traditional classroom. While there are several interpretations of the term “digital”, the overall definition is that it includes “a set of practices and world views brought about by a complex system of knowledge production and circulation, established mainly by the Internet and the Web during the 1990s” (Marcello Vitali-Rosati).

More precisely and still related to learning, but this time with elearning, the term “digital learning device” can be used to describe “a system based on an online digital platform allowing the hosting, consultation and downloading of content aimed at accompanying learners in a structured learning process” (Sébastien Stasse). Thus elearning includes the use of a digital learning device.

What is the difference between a massive open online course (MOOC) and open and distance learning (ODL)?

The Massive Open Online Course, most often referred to by the acronym MOOC, is a free online course open to everyone and that can be taken by tens of thousands of people, but which does not lead to any graduation and rarely to a certification. In its classic form, MOOC is recorded in advance, and its delivery involves a predefined number of sessions, the beginning and end of which are fixed in advance, and which can be delivered over a few weeks or months. However, MOOCs can also be presented live and allow for interaction between participants as well as with the trainer using Web 2.0 tools.

MOOCs provide access to three types of resources: online courses (filmed or written), support resources (tutorials, glossary, etc.) and facilitation resources (interaction between participants with Web 2.0, newsletter, etc.). Several universities around the world have been designing MOOCs for the past ten years or so, which contribute to their international visibility, particularly in order to attract international students. It should be noted that the arrival of MOOCs in the field of continuing education is more recent than that of ODL and is still limited. As part of the worldwide movement of “open educational resources” – a term first adopted at the 2002 UNESCO forum – MOOC involves a form of self-learning or self-training (see Self-training 101).

Open and Distance Learning (ODL) does not preclude self-training, but this is not as inherent in it as it is in MOOC. ODL may include the presence of a trainer and a group of learners and may include individual learning activities as well as cooperative learning activities. It is also possible to integrate this type of training into a so-called “hybrid” or “blended” training – a part of which takes place at a distance and the other in a face-to-face setting.

It can be said that the learning (know-how) logic of ODL is opposed to the “simple” access to information (knowledge) logic of MOOC. This is because the ODL is a structured, learner-centred training situation that includes a pedagogical path aimed at meeting individual needs through individualized or collective ways. ODL can also be provided by educational institutions, businesses or other types of organizations, with or without pre-requisites.

Above all, it is characterized by the flexibility of its pedagogical organization – modular times, variable spaces and differentiated modes of action – which makes it more accessible than traditional training. The use of the term “open” in its name refers to this flexibility which it offers both to the learner and to the organization providing it, whereas, in the case of MOOC, it relates to the fact that it is free of charge. Aimed at facilitating access to vocational training, ODL is therefore not necessarily free of charge and often leads to graduation or certification.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the ODL can be integrated into a so-called “hybrid” or “blended” training, i.e. training in which part of it is given online and the other part in person, regardless of which of these modes is the most important. ODL can also include individual learning activities as well as cooperative learning activities.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.