Online universities and traditional colleges that offer courses in physical classrooms have the same end goal: provide students with an educational experience that enables them to grow in their chosen field and eventually earn a degree. But although their purpose is the same, both possess significant differences in the approach they take, setting them distinctly apart.
Distance learning definitely has its upside, especially for those who can't afford the time or costs associated with attending a standard brick-and-mortar university.

Benefits of Online Learning

  • No pre-defined class schedule
  • No commute to campus
  • Lower tuition
  • Fewer fees (parking, activity, etc.)
  • Ability to engage online with classmates around the country (and the world)

Disadvantages of Online Learning

  • Direct contact with instructors and classmates, providing learning through immediate feedback
  • Physical textbooks and supplemental materials that are believed to be more beneficial when consuming large amounts of content
  • Student participation readily encouraged (and often accounts for a portion of the final grade)
  • Potential for networking and social interaction with other classmates (some of whom you may end up working with one day)

Curriculum - where the buck stops

Like any investment, higher education requires considerable background and planning to select the institution that will best meet your specific needs. Similar to buying a car or a new computer, different universities vary wildly in the value they offer with respect to their online courses. So when trying to determine which one is right for you, it's important to know that the main difference between the two is in the curriculum... and how it's presented.

In fact, this is often cited as the primary difference between online universities and courses offered in traditional classrooms. And depending on the university, the difference can be vast.

Coursework that's offered online attempts to use a formal education process through which the students and instructor interact via the web even though they are not in the same place (and many times not even in the same country). This means all exams, quizzes, lectures and reading are completed online, with course materials delivered via websites, electronic textbooks and streaming lectures, typically provided in an on-demand format. More so than any other consideration, this structure represents the biggest difference between the two styles of learning, specifically because it may have less of a lasting impact on some students due to the limitations of the electronic medium.
It's been reported that many people require interpersonal interaction to learn effectively and when that connection is removed, as it is through online universities, it alters both the learning experience and potential for retention of the material.

This system of curriculum distribution is very different from that provided through the traditional college classroom. At a brick-and-mortar university, many courses require your physical presence, enforcing an attendance policy that can often significantly impact your grade. While attending class, students are also required to listen and take notes during the lecture and are often tested on the material as its presented in class - some of which is not found in the companion reading material.

As a result, instructors must provide more detailed feedback to ensure the information has been presented clearly, as the student does not have the luxury of reviewing a streaming video feed or re-browsing a web page.

In addition, many colleges are rushing to market with online courses in an attempt to capture this rapidly-growing segment, and are providing versions of their courses that - though technically still providing the same information - do not fulfill the requirements for accreditation. This lack of accreditation often means credits earned may not transfer or be applicable to a degree.

So when signing up for an online university, make sure the curriculum is (1) accredited and (2) transferable or applicable to your end goal.