is it possible to jump into this game's multiplayer once i learn the basics of single player, or should i be proficient in single player before i make the leap into online?
You know, that's a really subjective call. It really depends on how much experience with other RTS games you have, how quick a learner you are, and your own expections of the gaming experience. It's very difficult to jump into multiplayer without taking your lumps. One way or another you'll be the unknown newbie who everyone is reserved about playing with, and you'll often encounter players who vastly outclass you. It's just the reality of the situation.
I think if you know all the units and what they do, and have a general feel for the pacing of the game you can probably give multiplayer a shot. However, it's up to you to decide when you're ready to make that jump... because very few people pull their punches online.
is that how most advent/tec games play out online?
This can happen, but a good TEC player shouldn't fold unless there was something else working against him. My bet is that the hard TEC AI invested all its money in trade ports and prioritized siege frigates as its main combat force. The Advent AI probably prioritized a disciple swarm and completely slaughtered the TEC which essentially had no defenses. Unfortunately, the AI strategies are not context sensitive, so you may see one build a huge fleet on a multistar map (useless, it can't get to the enemy) and another build trade ports right next to its nearest opponent (also worthless; they'll be destroyed LONG before they even pay for their own cost).
The biggest difference is that AI's do not know how to regroup. They will get their units slaughtered rather than consolidating back into a single powerful fighting force. Worse, they don't build repair bays, which means damaged units remain damaged and don't recover. Perplexingly, they love to build turrets, but then will sally out and fight you outside of turret range, which makes those turrets completely worthless. All these things together mean that the AI is an atrocious defender and once it starts losing it very rarely can turn things back.
As a counter-example, I made a big screwup in a TEC vs Advent matchup and lost my capital ship while the Advent player advanced on me. I fell back and even abandoned my homeworld (he had very little bombard capability, so he actually ended up leaving it intact and I reclaimed it later) to get some breathing space, but came back with heavy cruisers and hoshikos and pushed him out and back to our original lines. An AI would have lost the initial battle and then kept losing its units rather than consolidating and building them up, preventing any chance of a recovery. A human player like me knows how to give ground, regroup, and then counter-attack to retake the lost ground. If he gets siege frigates to bombard, he's weakened his combat fleet, if he doesn't he can't exactly take down those planets very quickly.