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What's the difference between online classes and traditional classes?

By Brian Fairbanks

At a glance

  • Online classes offer flexibility that can help you save time and money toward a degree.
  • Attending a virtual classroom offers numerous lifestyle benefits including improved work-life balance, self-paced learning and 24/7 access to course materials.
  • University of Phoenix offers online degree programs that can help busy people better fit education into their lives.

Online classes vs. traditional classes

While COVID-19 may have brought remote learning to the masses, online courses predate the pandemic and offer a completely different experience. While once thought of as a novelty, online education is even more robust than before and offers exciting new opportunities to learn from anywhere in the world.

For some, online education is exciting and bold. For others, e-learning can be a little scary. So let's take a look at the differences between online learning and traditional learning.

If you're new to online programs, it can be a little confusing. So we're breaking down the primary differences between online classes and traditional classes.

Explore more than 100 online programs aligned to 300+ real-world careers. 

Commuting vs. telecommuting

At a traditional university, there’s no getting around the back-and-forth of a commute. You might live an hour away, from door to classroom and you have to make that trek daily or weekly.

Some students may not mind this while others would rather save time. A virtual classroom removes the obstacle of geography. All you need is a steady internet connection to catch up on lectures.

Strict schedules vs. flexibility

An on-campus university is usually an efficient enterprise. But, it comes with strict class times and minimal tolerance for lateness or absences (even if there’s traffic or you have competing obligations to family or work).

If you do miss a lecture at a traditional university, you might have to ask a classmate to share his or her notes before the next class or at least the next test. And even if you find someone willing to share, you take a risk that those notes are inaccurate or incomplete.

In the virtual learning environment, however, you can typically catch up on classroom instruction and coursework within a few days and not fall behind or rely on anyone else to get caught up.

Limited vs. 24/7 access

While both in-person and online classes have requirements around attendance and deadlines, learning online can usually be accessed anytime within a certain window. So, whether you’re a night owl or on a lunch break, you can attend class when it works for your schedule.

On campus classes, on the other hand, are not usually recorded, so if you miss something, it may be gone for good. (Unless your lecturer fills you in!)


  Online classes Traditional classes
Telecommuting vs commuting You save time and money by reducing your need to drive back and forth to a brick-and-mortar location. You need to travel to and from your school which adds miles to your vehicle, takes time out of your schedule, and adds the cost of fuel to your budget.
Flexibility vs strict schedules Self-paced study means you set your own schedule and work around your needs. Strict class times and less flexibility.
24/7 access vs limited access Can be accessed any time from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. Rigid time frames for you to attend class
Cost Online degrees can be more affordable than traditional education. Higher tuition rates and more costly physical textbooks.

While both in-person and online classes have requirements around attendance and deadlines, online classes can usually be accessed anytime within a certain window. So, whether you’re a night owl or on a lunch break, you can attend class when it works for your schedule.

In-person classes, on the other hand, are not usually recorded, so if you miss something, it may be gone for good. (Unless your lecturer fills you in!)


The cost of an online college can be significantly lower than that of a traditional university. In addition to enjoying lower tuition rates, students often save money indirectly by not living on campus and by purchasing digital textbooks instead of physical textbooks.

With virtual learning, a lot of other high costs associated with traditional universities disappear or are dramatically reduced. Instructors still receive salaries, for example, but typically only for the time courses are in progress and not year-round.

The advantages of online courses

Distance learning, or eLearning, has a variety of benefits. These include:

  • Self-paced study
  • Flexible scheduling
  • Faster completion
  • Instant access to most courses
  • Turning in assignments online for quicker turn-around
  • Attending school virtually
  • Access to more colleges nationally and internationally
  • No commute
  • Potentially lower costs

The learning environment at most online educational institutions is more open, flexible and modern than traditional classroom settings.

Ease of access

Online students can access their peers and their teachers as long as they have a reliable computer and internet connection.

Online institutions like University of Phoenix create opportunities for one-on-one connections with both instructors and peers for a learning experience tailored to each student’s interests and needs, minus the time-consuming commute.


There are ways to save at both traditional and online universities, but it’s important to note that the cost per college credit is only part of the equation. Some colleges charge per credit hour, some charge per course and still others charge per semester.

Other institutions, such as University of Phoenix, offer fixed tuition rates for your program, which lock in your tuition rate at enrollment. This gives students both peace of mind and the ability to plan ahead. When comparing costs, look at what the charge is, how many credits are required and how long the program takes.

Enhanced work-life balance

The term "work-life balance" refers to the struggle many adults feel between balancing their professional responsibilities and their personal lives. In-person classes three or more days per week adds an entirely new level of stress to that balance.

Both online and in-person college require timely completion of assignments. However, the online format allows students to learn from home. This means online learners can spend more time with their families rather than commuting to and from class.

Moderate pacing

In addition to being able to access course assignments and information on your own schedule, some online universities like University of Phoenix offer the advantage of taking just one class at a time. This sequential course load encourages students to focus on and retain the information, one class at a time.

24/7 availability

Success on students’ terms means there are round-the-clock options for catching up on courses. This can include rewatching recorded instruction and accessing course materials, all of which are available online. (No lugging around backpacks full of textbooks!)

Finally, the University of Phoenix and other online universities have accredited online program offerings, instructors with real-world experience and degree programs designed to cultivate value-driven skills in students. All of this, along with other benefits like University of Phoenix’s five- or six-week classes, fixed-rate tuition, course flexibility and lifetime career counseling, ensure today’s students enjoy a range of advantages inherent to online learning.

When it comes to pursuing higher education, there are more options than ever. It’s just a matter of researching the pros and cons of what’s available to decide which path is your path.

Now that you know the differences between online and traditional university instruction, get familiar with the differences in cost.

If you think your learning style would benefit from full-time, or part-time online courses, be sure to take a look at University of Phoenix's offerings.


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