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What is an Online University?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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An online university is a school that offers courses of study and degrees for completion of studies over the Internet, rather than in physical classrooms. Many of these schools are good institutions, often based on the instruction methods of the institutions to which they are connected. Others are sadly termed diploma mills, as they offer degrees with little study, and are often used by both the school and the student to defraud potential employers.

Some forms of online university may be offered as both Internet courses and a combination of class meetings. Most universities, particularly junior colleges, now offer a number of courses online to meet the needs of working professionals. These courses often have a few Saturday meetings during a semester or quarter.

The online university that conducts itself entirely over the Internet usually has less formal rules about timeframe for completion of assignments. Courses offered online through a physical institution generally have specific timelines that must be met to pass a course. Even though the online university can offer flexibility to students, it may not be the best choice for all students.

An online university generally depends upon written instruction and explanation. Not all learners are equally adept at interpreting written instruction, and it may be impossible to have a face-to-face meeting with an instructor to clarify terms. Those who respond better to verbal instruction are unlikely to fare well in an online university setting.

Sometimes an instructor conducts classes on DVDs or short films available on the Internet. In the latter case, one must usually have either DSL or cable Internet to download these films. An older computer many not have the necessary requirements for taking an online class.

The online university generally requires a higher degree of self-discipline than a traditional university, especially when a rigid schedule for turning in assignments is not maintained. If one is not motivated to complete work, attending an online university may simply result in paying a lot of money to receive nothing. On the other hand, those who are good at organization, and do well with written instructions, may find that the online university provides exactly the right requirements for attaining a higher college degree.

If one is considering an online university, prudence dictates researching the school to be certain that it is accredited. Some forms of the online university organize under religious accreditation, which provides some loopholes in terms of quality of education. While some schools accredited in this way are acceptable, others will not provide one with a degree that can be used for further study or work in one’s chosen field.

A diploma mill, masked as an online university, will frequently represent itself as accredited. If the accreditation is not verifiable, look for another school. Online universities in other countries like the U.K. and Australia must apply for accreditation through the government, but many schools in the US can make it sound as though they are accredited because private companies accredit schools.

The US Secretary of Education issues a list of accredited schools each year. Make certain before choosing an online university that the school is on that list. Also checking the years in operation, and if it has ties to a major university can confirm choice. Asking for references, as well as stability of the online university makes good sense. Occasionally an online university has too few students and closes suddenly, leaving the student in the lurch. If the university is not accredited, any classes the student may have taken may not be transferable to another college.

When an online university is accredited, it may be the best way for people who cannot get to a college for various reasons, to achieve a college degree. An online university can represent globalization at its best, and increase opportunities for those who might have never imagined being able to attend college or receive an advanced degree.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon339725 — On Jun 26, 2013

I always stay online for an online program or study and what worries me is fraud, in the sense of finding am accredited school that would fulfill my wishes.

Also why are online programs not the same as classroom programs when the curricula match?

By parmnparsley — On May 14, 2011

@Alchemy- I was able to transfer all of my online university courses. The only thing that I can tell you if you are choosing an online university is to pay close attention to a schools accreditation. Many online schools will promise career success, but their credits will not transfer to other universities should you decide to transfer. In my mind, this draws into question the quality of the school if it cannot meet the requirements for national accreditation.

By chicada — On May 13, 2011

@ Alchemy- Online schools used to get a bad reputation for being schools that just pump out ill-trained graduates. I can tell you from experience that this is not true. The character of the graduate depends on the person, not the school.

I did an associates program at University of Phoenix and graduated with a 3.83 GPA. I have since transferred into Arizona State and have maintained a 4.00 GPA in my first year. The online program required much more writing, but the science classes were not as advanced as some of the ones I am taking on campus.

Each program has its strengths and weaknesses, but it made it easy to transition back to college life after seven years off. I am a Dean's list student, and I am planning to apply to UC Berkeley for graduate school. In my honest opinion, a good accredited online university can be well worth the money.

By Alchemy — On May 11, 2011

I heard that online universities degrees are not as valuable as degrees earned on campus. I want to go to college, but I have two young children and a job, making it impossible to attend classes during the day. Is an online school worth the money? Can I transfer credits to another university once I am finished with my online associates?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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