Digital Learning, E-Learning, Online Learning: What’s the Difference?

January 22, 2019

The democratization of information is one of the wonders of modern times. Knowledge isn’t held captive behind university walls; it can spread throughout the world. Students don’t have to search for learning; digital learning can come directly to them.

These new ways of teaching and learning benefit teachers as well. Teachers can take on more students from more diverse backgrounds, sharing their expertise, and using technology to multiply their efforts.

It’s striking how new these technologies and practices are. Just 20 years ago, there was very little in the way of online education or digital learning. Today, it’s hard to imagine higher education without some form of digital interaction.

Since digital learning is still so new, the language to describe it is ever-evolving. Many of the terms are synonymous, some overlap, and some have very specific implications. It’s important to understand these nuances to better set expectations with students, be precise in promoting course offerings, and more.

This glossary can help teachers get a handle on the lingo, and discover how each term fits into the overall educational landscape.

Digital Learning: Key Terms and Concepts

Digital Learning

Digital learning is an umbrella term, the broadest term on the list. It means any type of learning that includes using digital technology. That includes students taking courses online, of course. But it also includes students doing internet research or watching online videos in a classroom and teachers using digital tools like smart boards and tablets. Nearly any higher education course will include some type of digital learning.

Online Learning

This is another broad term, but slightly narrower than digital learning. It means that the majority of the coursework will be done through the internet — through forums, shared documents, email, chat, etc. However, it doesn’t imply that there is no face-to-face interaction between students and the teacher. It can include doing coursework in a classroom or at a distance, so long as communication is primarily online.


Also called “virtual learning,” e-learning generally refers to a course taken entirely over the internet. The teacher and students do not meet face to face. All course work and communication is handled via email, forums, chat, or video conferencing. Some institutions refer to this type of course as a “fully online” course.

Distance Learning

This term is commonly used as a synonym for e-learning. The term came into popularity to emphasize the idea that geographical distance is not a barrier to learning. Students from different cities, states, and countries can all take the same course together.

Blended Learning

Blended learning refers to a mix between a traditional classroom and an e-learning or online learning course. Students are required to be physically present for a predetermined number of classes, but the majority of coursework is still done online. For example, students might have assignments due on Monday and Wednesday that are submitted online, but are expected to attend a Friday class on campus.

Online Course Materials

This is another umbrella term that can refer to any texts, syllabuses, discussion forums and other resources made available for students online.

Digital Curriculum

Digital curriculum is more specific; it refers specifically to the texts, lectures, tests, and multimedia components that are used for instruction. In other words, digital curriculum refers to a collection of resources that together constitute a complete online course.


Finally, e-textbook or digital textbook is the narrowest term; it refers to a single work that has been made available in an e-reader compatible format like .pdf, .epub, or .txt.

Digital Learning: The Present and Future of Education

It only took one generation for digital learning to be born, evolve, and become the norm for higher education. Students today expect courses to have at least an online component, if not to be completely online.

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with digital learning. It’s up to teachers to help students maximize the former and minimize the latter. With a firm grasp on the concepts and terminology associated with digital learning, teachers can be better equipped to help students succeed.

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