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Distance Learning: what is it and how it works

Distance Learning: what is it and how it works

One of the most controversial issues of recent times has been the need to resort to distance education. What exactly is distance learning? And what are the main advantages and disadvantages connected to it?


It’s been one of the most debated and controversial issues in recent months, from the start of the health emergency. But what is distance learning exactly? And what does it really involve?

Although it might appear to be a new educational model, distance learning was actually established in the mid-1800s, with the first “correspondence courses” in Europe documented in London in 1840. They were present in the more industrialized countries and mostly aimed at adult learners. From the 20th century onwards, the pool of users has increased and gotten younger and takes advantage of new tools as they become available: radio, telephone, television, VHS, fax, the first teleconferences and then computers, first with floppy disks and CD-Rom. Today we are in what is known as the third generation of distance learning, thanks to the existence of the internet.

How it works

Distance learning can take many forms, but the common denominator is that teachers and students do not share a space: there is no physical interaction between them and the relationship is mediated by technological instruments.

This is different from integrated distance learning, which alternates in-person and remote lessons.

Distance learning can take place in two different ways:

  • Asynchronous, pre-taped audio or video lessons, slides, homework uploaded onto a platform (whether belonging to the educational institution or external to it) that students can access or download at any time;

  • Synchronous, live audio or video lessons that use a platform to recreate the experience of a real class virtually, with interaction and questions in real time.

Asynchronous distance learning requires greater independence and responsibility from the students and allows them greater flexibility in organizing their time, while the alt
ernative takes place in scheduled timeslots.

Pros and cons of distance learning

These are not new tools: webinars and e-learning have existed for a while but they were aimed mostly at adults and in university or professional training settings; they were not a routine part of compulsory education.

In a historic moment like this, where it has become necessary to reduce contact between people to the minimum by closing a number of educational institutions, it is undeniable that technology has helped ensure that school activities are not completely interrupted and has allowed for continuity in the educational process.


The principal advantages of distance learning are:

  1. The ability to organize one’s time independently: when teaching is asynchronous, it is possible to choose when to watch video lessons or look at slides and when and how to focus on the exercises, alternating the various topics according to one’s needs or inclination. However, this requires personal organizational skills and independence, so is principally advantageous at the secondary school level. It is important to provide the youngest students with a sense of normalcy and offer their habitual activities in virtual classes that follow the same timetable as traditional school.

  2. Logistical advantages, especially for those living in big cities or far from their schools.


survey carried out by IRCCS Gaslini of Genoa, in the form of an anonymous questionnaire about three weeks in the lockdown and presented in June 2020 to the Ministry of Health, found that the experience had significantly marked children and adolescents. The main disadvantages of distance learning appear to be:

  1. Behavioral and psychosomatic problems: analysis of the data relative to families with minor aged children revealed behavioral problems and signs of regression emerging in 65% of children under six years of age and 71% of children aged 6-18. The most frequent complaints in children under the age of six were increased irritabilitysleep disturbances and anxiety disorders (restlessness, separation anxiety). In children and adolescents (6-18), the most frequent disorders were psychosomatic (anxiety and somatoform disorders such as shortness of breath) and sleep disorders (difficulty in falling asleep, difficulty in waking to start lessons on the computer). Furthermore, an increased “emotional instability with irritability and mood swings” was also identified in older children.

  2. Problems deriving from technological devices and space: according to ISTAT data for 2018-2019, 33.8% of families do not have a computer or tablet at home, a figure that drops to 14.3% in families with at least one minor-age child. Only in 22.2% of families does every member have a computer or tablet at their disposal. This means that more than three in four students have to share the devices necessary for their education with siblings or parents who may be working from home. The situation is particularly problematic in southern Italy, where 41.6% of families do not have computers at home – which amounts to 470,000 students – and only 14.1% have a computer available for each family member. In addition, over 25% of people live in overcrowded conditions, a percentage that rises to 41.9% among minors.

  3. Problems deriving from lack of skills: two out of three adolescents (aged 14-17) who have used the internet in the last 3 months possess only basic or poor digital skills; fewer than three in ten rate their skills as high. 

  4. Problems deriving from network connections: according to ISTAT76.1% of families had access to the internet and 74.7% to a broadband connection in 2019. Almost all families with at least one minor had access to broadband (95.1%); in families where all members were 65 and over, this drops to 34%. The data, however, does not differentiate between ADSL and fiber optics, and public WiFi connections were included in the tally. So, while it may appear that over 95% of families have no connection problems, there is actually no clarity about the bandwidth and its capacity to easily support the audio and video links needed for online lessons or the flow of data when downloading the material provided by teachers and uploading coursework. These problems exist for the teachers, too.

  5. Difficulty in evaluating and involving students: distance learning requires new approaches to student assessment in a setting where teachers have far greater difficulty ensuring that tests are taken without external help, in addition to the challenge of finding effective ways to encourage student involvement, which is made more complicated by the distance created by using a device.

The distance learning numbers in Italy

In Italy there are almost 11 million students (precisely 10,876,792, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data), divided across the various educational levels:

  • 1,535,493 in kindergartens and preschools

  • 2,902,379 in primary school

  • 4,601,869 in middle and secondary school

  • 1,837,051 in tertiary education, including higher technical institutes, academies, conservatories, universities, masters and doctoral degree courses.

Distance learning and support

Tuttoscuola, a publication specializing in the education sector, reports that, following the Prime Minister’s decree of 3 November 2020, approximately 3,700,000 students are at home, 362,000 teachers are involved in distance learning (45% of the total) and at least 68,000 support teachers (almost 40% of the total) are working at a distance with the 111,000 students with disabilities entrusted to them, except where there is an in-person option for them alone.


Disabilities and social inclusion

Four out of every ten students have disabilities; Campania and Lombardy alone, with over 50,000 children, make up almost half the total number of students requiring support for distance learning.

For these students, the risk of exclusion is even higher, given that support staff cannot provide contact and the daily interventions that are so useful in building operational independence.

In addition, some of them require adult support to use the technology. Students with specific learning difficulties or special educational needs (SEN) may have problems interfacing in a virtual class where the use of a device makes the relationship with the teacher less immediate.

Outlook for distance learning

A decree was signed on 2 November 2020 allocating €85 million for integrated digital learning to schools, distributed according to number of students and the OCSE ESCS (Economic, Social and Cultural Status) indicator that assists in targeting the greater part of funds to situations with the greatest socioeconomic needs and the lowest spread of digital devices.

The funds will be used to purchase more than 200,000 new electronic devices and provide over 100,000 connections, on loan to underprivileged students. Financing was already earmarked for these purposes in March 2020, which enabled the purchase of 432,330 devices and over 100,000 connections.

Schools acquired devices and technology for the start of the academic year in September partly using the €331 million provided directly by the institutions, in addition to making available the 1,200,000 devices already in their possession (data from the Ministry of Education website).

If nothing else, there is an attempt to fill the gaps revealed during the first wave of the pandemic, at least partially, on the technological side.

Projects: how to manage distance learning

Given the topical nature of this issue, there are many proposals supporting distance learning across all age ranges.

  1. The Ministry of Education website has a continually evolving portal on distance learning offering “tools for cooperation, exchange of good practice and twinning between schools, training webinars, multimedia content for study, certified platforms, all in full respect of privacy norms, for distance learning”.
    There is also a support community to make learning truly inclusive for everyone: web radio with provisions for sign language for the deaf and audio for the blind and visually impaired, contacts with Territorial Support Centers, autism centers and associations providing support for teachers, students and families. It also directs users to platforms and offers of mini guides for teachers in addition to much more multi-media material.

  2. The UNESCO portal also offers various solutions, platforms and advice for teachers and families about how to provide psychosocial support during such a complex time.

  3. The INDIRE (Istituto Nazionale di Documentazione, Innovazione e Ricerca Educativa) platform, in accordance with the Ministry of Education and thanks to support from the network of schools of the “Educational Avantgarde” (Avanguardie educative) and “Small Schools” (Piccole Scuole) movements and from the European Community’s eTwinning program, supplies tools and support for teachers and school administrators in adopting distance learning methodologies. The site provides video tutorials that explain how to record a lesson or hold one live on the most commonly-used online platforms, in addition to a series of interesting webinars available to everyone about how to make topics and subjects clearer and more interesting without being in the classroom. Aspects linked to information security and privacy and pedagogy are also discussed.

  4. The Fondazione Treccani Cultura, which we support, has established the Strade Maestre (Teaching Roads) projectInclusionaccessibilitysharingcollaboration and specialization are the tools, or roads to learning, offered by the digital learning platform Treccani Scuola.
    Dedicated to students, teachers and educational institutions, and accessible free of charge at school or remotely on computer, tablet and smartphone, it offers an on-demand study support service with a group of teachers selected by Treccani, in addition to interactive and immersive tools, multimedia courses, certified content, a community where students and teachers from all over Italy can meet and share material and best practices, and a constantly evolving digital archive.
    There are tools available to students with specific reading and learning difficulties to assist in independent and more effective study, such as magnification, annotation and text summaries. There are exercises and tests for individuals and classes to follow the learning phases, extremely useful for preparing for the state exam in particular, which provide immediate feedback, thereby helping teachers manage assessment at a distance and monitor the progress of the entire class.

  5. UNICEF Italia offers content that is aimed more at emotional than educational support, with short video lessons on various topics, creative ideas, animated readings from illustrated books, and video workshops for the youngest, meanwhile Telefono Azzurro keeps its listening and emergency lines open every day, 24 hours a day, in addition to providing advice on how to help children and adolescents recognize and manage fear, how to talk to children and answer their questions, plus activities to do at home.