We've all been to school at one point in our lives. The squeaking chairs, the scraping of pen or pencil against paper, the musty old books that have been around for generation and the one infinitely cranky staff member are all thoughts that come to mind. Being surrounded by peers, having a variety of teachers and being able to move in between class times was all a significant part of the standard experience. The online experience while similar can feel like a whole new experience.
One of the biggest differences in the way that online learning works is that most of the material is meant to be self taught. Interactions with peers in whatever online forum the school uses for discussions can help to clarify or build on material. However, the discussions themselves are used more as a guidance by professors to make sure you're on the right track. Interactive textbooks are another way the self-teaching method is put in place. Questions and mini-quizzes given in the textbook after each chapter help to keep a student on track with the learning process. Most of the larger assignments given have multiple steps to them in which the process is broken down to make a whole. While feedback is given on where you may need to expand or clarify, ultimately you're left to your own devices on it.
Another way that learning is vastly different in an online learning environment as compared to the standard environment is receiving help. During a physical class environment, there are set hours in which to participate and discuss course material. Questions can be asked on the spot or immediately after class where the teacher is readily accessible. In an online classroom, questions are asked at differing times as there often isn't a set schedule. Due to this, getting answers to questions you may have can be late coming. Often times, if there isn't a general place to ask in the discussion forum, you have to reach out to the teacher generally in an email for answers. This further delays getting an answer or guidance that you may need. Office hours are also skewed as they go off of what time zone the professor is in. If in a varying time zone, the time difference can make it extremely difficult to communicate effectively or efficiently.
There are some pretty hefty similarities in the two learning environments as well. One of the biggest of these is the interaction with peers. Peer interaction is often marked as an important aspect of grading overall in both the standard and online learning environments. While face to face interaction is often a little bit easier since you can hear the tone of the person involved, both do require the same amount of general respect. Using proper etiquette is important in either environment. Also, everyone learns differently and can come to different conclusions about the same source material. Part of engaging is learning to see other perspectives and engage with them without necessarily having to agree with them.
Probably the most notable similarity is the mass of both good and bad teachers. Unfortunately, bad teachers are everywhere including online learning environments. Generally, the bad ones can be weeded out from suggestions by your peers. However, if you do get stuck with a bad one by accident, you can count it as a learning experience of a different kind and maybe even transfer classes to a different teacher. The good professors generally speak for themselves in the knowledge that they share with the class both in discussion forums and through general class announcements.
Either route you choose to go, there will be difficulties. Every person is different, so the likelihood of success greatly depends on that person. If you enjoy the fast paced, self taught method, online learning might be for you. If you learn better in an environment where you can ask questions and get immediate answers, the standard learning environment would be better for you. Either way, you're learning.