According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 4.3 million undergraduate students, or 20 percent of all undergraduates, took at least one distance education course in the 2007-08 school year. And about 0.8 million, or 4 percent of all undergraduates, took their entire program through distance education.

These numbers are impressive, but even more so when you factor in the rate of growth. A recent study found that the popularity of online colleges is growing exponentially in relation to standard brick-and-mortar institutions – in fact, it’s a ratio of more than 10 to 1.

But if you’re currently enrolled in classes offered through a standard brick-and-mortar university, you should make sure you understand exactly what you’re jumping into before transitioning to online education and, more importantly, what your degree will be worth in the real world after completing your coursework.

Types of online education

One of the main things to be aware of is that there are four very different styles of distance learning, often used in combination with one another but each with its own unique requirements.

Open Schedule

These classes can be completed anywhere and provide the student with the highest level of freedom possible, enabling them to incorporate the coursework into their personal schedule. Within this system, students are given the course material and a set of deadlines. Free to meet the deadlines anytime and anyway they choose, this style of online education is designed for self-motivated people who don’t succumb to procrastination.

Blended Learning

This is a common version of distance learning that offers an open schedule, but requires students to communicate in an established location, whether it’s in a physical classroom or online via message boards or chat rooms. Similar to an open schedule, blended learning allows students to complete assignments on their own time as long as they meet the deadline required for communication.

Computer-Based Learning

This is the strictest version of distance learning, so much so that it almost mirrors the behavior of the standard classroom. Within computer-based learning, students are required to participate at designated times and places, often ranging from a computer or science lab to an actual classroom. As such, this option is typically ideal only for those who live close to campus and are looking to take on extra coursework through a system of independent study.

Fixed-Time E-Learning

The most common type of online education, fixed-time e-learning sets a pre-determined schedule that can be kept from any location. Unlike computer-based learning, students are not required to attend a physical location. Instead, they’re permitted to complete the coursework from home, school or the office and then log onto the online learning site at the pre-determined time. This type of distance learning is also popular as it provides a live online forum that tends to supplement the social component that can often be lacking for online students.

Public perception

When considering switching to an online university, the other major consideration you should be aware of is the perception it will give you in the marketplace. Some employers may worry about the legitimacy of a degree obtained from a school they’ve never heard of. And it’s hard to blame them. “Degree mills” abound on the web, with organizations that have legitimate-sounding names conferring “degrees” on people for little more than a fee.

If transitioning to an online college, make sure the college you’re going to has a credible reputation (if not a widely-recognizable name). The surest way of doing so is pursuing a degree from the distance learning arm of a well-respected traditional university or, at the very least, an accredited distance learning institute.