According to the California Distance Learning Project, distance learning is defined by five characteristics. Teacher and learner are separated for a majority of instruction, separation is in both space and time, educational media is used to convey course content, communication occurs between teacher and learner, and the pace is controlled by the student. Additionally, learning may be presented synchronously or asynchronously, either in real time with the instructor or with students accessing materials at their own speed.

Practical Advantages

One of the major advantages of distance learning is the flexibility in scheduling, particularly in asynchronous courses. Students can control the amount of active class time and can also determine the place study will occur. The ability to control time and place eliminates the need for travel to and from a classroom setting, which may save students money from commuting costs. According to the New Jersey Virtual University, course costs are reduced when classroom space and materials are eliminated -- savings that are passed on to students.

Learning Advantages

In addition to the flexibility benefits, the learning styles of some students are benefitted by the distance learning format, and the additional responsibility for learning motivates students. Students also gain the ability to control the pace of their own learning and have access to resources and experts through Internet communication. Courses that may not be available in a local college or university or courses that may be cancelled due to low enrollment can attract students from around the world, increasing course offerings and availability.

Practical Disadvantages

Disadvantages of online learning center around technological barriers and obstacles. Internet downtime or technological glitches on the part of the school's provider or the student's provider can prohibit students from accessing course materials. New users of technology and the Internet have to learn computer skills first, which adds additional time to the course requirements.

Educational Disadvantages

With an asynchronous online format to learning, students who are not highly motivated and focused may struggle keeping up with course material. Additionally, some students may not prefer the lack of face time with instructors and peers, which may also lead to decreased motivation. According to Maryland's Montgomery College, the required time to complete course requirements and read course material often exceeds the amount of time it would take to attend class. The amount of freedom afforded by an online course makes it easier to procrastinate and may be more difficult for students who lack time-management skills.