Complete Guide to Online Education Degrees
Online education degrees are designed for individuals who are interested in roles as teachers, child care professionals, school administrators, or higher education administrators. As such, there are several degree specializations available including special education, higher education, and early childhood education; for more information, please view our list of education degrees by specialty. Future students should make sure the degree they are considering will adequately prepare them for the career they hope to have; for example, some online education programs are intended for teacher licensure, while others are geared toward current educators who want to advance their careers.
Accreditation is very important for online education degrees, especially for students looking to earn a teaching license. Prospective students should make sure that the online programs they are considering are recognized by the teaching board in the state where they hope to earn licensure. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation is an important programmatic accrediting body for education degrees. Read More
Featured List of Colleges & Universities for an Online Education Degree
Overview of Available Online Education Degrees
Online certificates and associate degrees in education can provide an introduction to the field and preparation for later college-level work. Stand-alone undergraduate certificates are usually available in early childhood education areas; certificates that are part of bachelor’s degrees cover a wider range of topics, such as education policy or adult education. These degrees cover general liberal arts topics, as well as courses in curriculum design, child behavior, and instructional methods.
Bachelor’s degrees in education are the usual requirement for teaching in public elementary and secondary schools. Online degrees are available in elementary education, early childhood education, secondary education, and special education. In general, half of the credits in bachelor’s degrees in education are in the education major core, while half are in liberal arts topics like natural science, social science, communications, and math.
Online graduate certificates and master’s degrees in education are often used to earn a teaching credential and state teaching license. Current teachers can use these programs to advance their understanding of teaching skills. Master’s programs and certificates are available in specializations such as education technology, elementary teacher education, special education, literacy, teacher leadership, administration, and adult education.
Online doctoral degrees in education are usually aimed at students who want to work in higher-level education policy or administration roles. These degree programs require students to perform research into a particular area of education, such as learning sciences and technology or race and language in education.
Individuals who are interested in starting careers in education may choose to start out with an associate degree. Most two-year degree programs in this area are offered at community or junior colleges and require the completion of at least 60 credit hours. Applicants should possess a high school diploma or GED to qualify for enrollment. Associate degree holders in education are generally qualified to become teaching assistants. Those who wish to advance in their field may need to pursue a bachelor's or master's degree.
Students in associate degree programs in education can chose from many different areas of specialization. The most common concentrations are early childhood education, elementary education, secondary education, and special education. Some students may also choose to specialize in a particular subject, such as math or science. Regardless of the area of interest, students will learn about classroom management, curriculum development, and best practices for working with school staff and parents. Coursework typically includes topics such as education fundamentals, education technology, education psychology, and child development and growth. In addition to classroom learning, students in these programs may be required to complete internships or externships in order to graduate.
Students in the education bachelor's program study a broad array of curriculum and instructional techniques. Education bachelor's students specialize in a particular grade level or subject area. These programs require about four years of full-time study and include 120 credit hours of coursework. Applicants need a high school diploma or the equivalent.
Core classes in the education program explore the structure of public education, major topics and issues in public education, cultural effects on student achievement, education around the world, and the political state of education. Other classes explore curriculum development, evaluation techniques, and teaching techniques. To earn a four-year degree in education, students also take a number of general courses in math, science, the arts, and the humanities.
The upper-division coursework in the bachelor's program is centered around the student's particular focus area in education. Possible specializations include elementary education, special education, middle school, or secondary education. Students specializing in secondary education also take coursework in a particular teaching subject area, such as math, science, or English. Teaching-oriented bachelor’s degrees require that students complete teaching labs or practicums, as well as an internship.
Depending on the state and grade level the student intends to instruct, the bachelor's degree may be sufficient to launch a teaching career. In some states, secondary school teachers are required to complete graduate training. Private schools set their own standards for teachers, and a bachelor's degree may be sufficient for employment in certain schools. Prospective teachers should investigate their state's teaching licensure procedures to understand the rules that apply to them.
The master’s degree in education is a two-year degree that includes study in teaching theories and instructional techniques. Online master’s degrees in education usually have a core of five to eight required classes, along with electives the student can choose. Applicants need an accredited bachelor's degree.
The courses in the master’s program depend on the type of training the student is seeking. Some programs are entry-level degrees, aimed at individuals with no previous teaching experience. These programs cover the theory of education and instructional techniques for a particular grade level or subject. These degrees also include teaching practicums and internships that help students master hands-on teaching skills. Other master's degrees are aimed at current teachers who want to deepen their understanding of a particular subject area or gain leadership skills. These programs may focus in areas like special education, technology in education, reading and literature, or curriculum and instruction.
With a master’s degree in education, a graduate can continue or launch a career in education administration, teaching, or education lobbying and development. Administrators typically need experience in teaching or the education system in addition to a master's degree. Individuals with no teaching experience can use the master's to earn a state teaching credential; current teachers can use the program to broaden their skills or become education leaders.
Students in education PhD programs conduct original research into a particular area of education theory or practice. These programs require completion of 70-90 credit hours and take four to five years to complete. Applicants to these programs typically need a bachelor's and master's degree, along with a strong education-based resume.
The curriculum varies between programs, but courses generally provide reading, discussion, and writing forums for students on topics like education finance, the achievement gap, and education reform. Students also choose an emphasis area, such as elementary education, mathematics education, science education, special education, school administration, or educational technology, and take courses focusing on topics in that field. One of the most important components of a doctorate in education program is the dissertation. Students choose an original topic and an advising professor, then read extensively about their topic, and conduct their own research.
Graduates of these programs often become professors in universities and colleges, teaching classes in general education, teaching, education policy, education administration, and educational psychology and counseling. Professors of education also participate in research studies, often with the goal of publishing their findings in academic journals; they may also advise graduate students as they write their theses and dissertations. Some graduates will work in education policy and reform, while those who studied education administration can become principals, headmasters, deans, superintendents, or employees for state and national departments of education.
Certificates in education are available in a variety of focuses, from teacher certification to school leadership or educational policy. These programs typically take a year or less to complete and are comprised of 6 to 10 courses. Applicants need an accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree, depending on the focus and level of the certificate. Some programs also require previous experience working with children or teaching, as well as a clear criminal background check.
The coursework in the education certificate will vary, depending on the program’s goals. Many programs are designed to certify teachers in a particular subject area, such as elementary or secondary education. These programs discuss instructional abilities and teaching theory. Some programs are aimed at experienced educators and discuss education administration and leadership topics, such as human resources issues and professional communication techniques. Other certificates are useful for seasoned teachers who want more knowledge in a particular teaching area, such as teaching students with disabilities or using educational technology.
The career opportunities available after completing an education certificate will depend on the graduate’s previous education and experience. Many use the certificate to take a state licensing exam, either to become a kindergarten-through-12th-grade teacher or a school principal. Education certificates can also be useful for teachers interested in moving into policy or research roles in local, state, and federal governments. Other programs are used by practicing teachers to deepen their curriculum and cement their role in their current school.
Attending an accredited school is one of the best decisions that a student can make. Accreditation is a designation awarded to a school for complying with a set of academic and personal support standards. Students who need financial aid, hope to earn certification or licensure as a teacher, and who may want to attend graduate school or transfer credits must attend an online school that is accredited. All individuals seeking a teaching credential must attend an education program that is recognized by their state’s board of education.
To ensure the best possible outcomes for your education program, the online degree program you choose should be accredited by either one of the six primary regional accrediting boards, the Distance Education Training Council, or an accrediting board that specializes in education programs. Examples of these programmatic accrediting agencies include the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools (MSA-CESS), and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, which is in the process of becoming part of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).
Any school's accreditation status can be checked through the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. For more information about accreditation, please visit our comprehensive accreditation hub.
Education graduates who plan to become a teacher or an administrator (e.g., principal or superintendent) in a public school district will need to follow the proper procedure to become licensed before they can begin working. Each US state has its own set of licensing or certification requirements, so it's best to check with your particular state before embarking on a path to become an educator or administrator. In general though, educators and administrators must earn an accredited degree, have professional experience, and pass at least one competency exam.
Specific details about licensing and certification requirements for public school teachers can be found in Guide to Online Schools' Complete Guide to an Online Teaching Degree. The licensing process for public school principals is more rigorous than the process for obtaining a teaching certificate, as administrators are expected to have advanced leadership skills and knowledge about operating a school or school district. To become a principal, most states require candidates to have a master's degree from a regionally accredited school, a teaching certificate, and at least three years of teaching experience.
Principals must also complete a principal preparation program or internship to develop their leadership skills and their knowledge of how to improve students' educational experiences. Other requirements often include passing an exam to demonstrate basic reading, writing, and math skills; passing a state-based educator standards exam; and submitting to a criminal background check. Some states have different levels of principal certification, starting with an initial "residency certificate" and advancing to a "professional certificate" after two years of experience as an employed administrator. Some states break down their certifications even further for elementary vs. secondary school principals, while other states have the same requirements for both academic levels.
To become the superintendent of a school district, some states require that applicants have a current principal or teaching license and a certain number of years of experience in each professional role. Superintendents may also be required to complete a superintendent preparation program as well as an accredited master's degree program with a superintendent focus before they can take a licensing exam. After passing the exam, they may be eligible for an initial superintendent certificate for a certain number of years before they must renew their certification.
Educational administrators are the leaders and of schools, colleges, and other types of educational organizations. They are the leaders and guides in the educational field, either working intimately with students or with the larger community. School administrators work at state and federal levels and help develop state policies that affect education. Administrators can also be school superintendents, principals, or principal support staff.
Students who are seeking entry-level administrative positions in a school district office or at state or federal levels may wish to start with an associate or bachelor's degree in education administration, while those with more professional experience and who hope to work as a superintendent or hold a position as an education administrator at the state or federal level should consider a graduate degree or certificate in education administration.
One-year education administration or education leadership graduate certificate programs are available for students who are currently earning or have already earned a master's degree. They are typically designed for education professionals who would like to advance into a career as a school leader or school district leader. Associate and bachelor’s degrees in educational administration give a broader and more in-depth liberal arts experience. An undergraduate degree program in early childhood education administration provides students with an understanding of the education industry, helps them gain advanced organizational management skills and trains them in the theories of child development.
Graduate degree programs provide highly advanced education in education administration. A master’s degree program in educational leadership offers aspiring principals, deans, and other administrators an opportunity to further develop their professional skills and prepares them to effectively manage the way a school operates. Educational leadership doctorates introduce current educators to advanced theories in educational psychology, educational leadership and public relations, school law, and leadership ethics.
Many people choose to work in elementary education because they love being around children. A desire to help children develop and learn the basics of academics and socialization is essential for elementary school teachers. These teachers work long hours for relatively low pay, and often find that their jobs are highly stressful and demanding, while also being susceptible to criticism. Elementary education students will study child psychology and development, how social environments impact students, how to develop effective curriculum and evaluation techniques, and how to handle large groups of students who have their own individual needs.
Certificates and associate degrees in elementary education do not lead to careers as elementary school teachers. Because they take so little time to earn, these programs concentrate on practical, rather than theoretical, classes. Students will study techniques for managing classrooms, dealing with young children, recognizing learning or behavioral disabilities, and helping students develop social skills. Associate degrees will also require more general academic classes like psychology, communications, and sociology. Bachelor's degrees will require classes in child psychology and development, child sociology, and the psychology of learning.
Students may self-specialize their master's or doctoral degree program. Most of these programs are research-based and feature a thesis or dissertation option. This extended project requires students to use their own experiences and ideas to come to an original and useful conclusion that is related to elementary education.
Because teaching is an active, hands-on profession, degree programs in elementary education tend to include in-classroom components. Traditional elementary education degree programs may have partnerships with local schools, having classes that revolve around service learning and internship placement. Online schools require students to seek out their own internship opportunities, unless they are already working in education.
People with associate degrees in elementary education may be able to work as para-educators, or work in preschools and daycare facilities. Those who aspire to these careers do not need further education, but some associate degrees are geared toward students who intend to transfer to four-year universities. To be a public school elementary teacher in many states, candidates must have a bachelor's degree, making this the most common elementary education degree. When selecting a graduate program, students should consider whether a program is meant for current teachers or aspiring teachers, as curriculum requirements will differ between the two types of programs. An elementary education program that includes a certification option is often best for people who are not yet teachers.
Teachers who are trained to teach English to speakers of other languages are some of the most in-demand educators in the United States and all over the world. In the United States, students from other countries find themselves in English-speaking public schools where teachers need to be able to help them succeed in a language they don't yet know. In other countries, such as Brazil, Italy, and China, students in schools are sometimes required by law to learn English. Many countries hire foreign teachers to help their students develop English fluency more quickly. Therefore, having a bachelor's or master's degree in the Teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL) or Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), can lead to steady employment in a rewarding career.
Everyone who works as a licensed teacher has at least a bachelor's degree, regardless of where they work or at what level they teach. This is the first step for almost anyone in their teaching career. The majority of ESL undergraduate degrees are actually general education degrees with a specialization in ESL or TESOL, requiring courses in educational equality, cultural studies in teaching, strategies for language acquisition, psychology of learning, and curriculum and evaluation techniques. Psychology, sociology, foreign languages, cultural studies, and ethnic studies are popular majors for aspiring ESL teachers as well.
A Master of Arts in TESOL takes one to two years to earn, usually requiring students to participate in practical classroom training. To enter a master's degree program, students may have to prove that they have spent a certain number of hours in an English language learning classroom. Most people volunteer in public schools to get this experience, though some participate in service-learning while they are still earning bachelor's degrees. There are also TESOL certification programs, which take one year or less. Doctorates in ESL are rare. Typically, only those who wish to work as professors or become leading theorists and revolutionaries in education seek these advanced degrees. Students participate in original research, pursuing a topic that is of personal interest to them.
Anyone who is using an ESL degree program to earn a teaching license will have to complete a student-teaching assignment, whether they choose online or traditional learning. The difference is that traditional schools provide students with an enormous amount of help in finding a teaching placement, whereas online students have to be more assertive in their communities. Online programs also emphasize independent learning, asking students to read, write, and practice creating assignments and lesson plans on their own. Traditional students have more opportunities for discussion and group work.
Online health education degree programs can equip students with the background to encourage healthy behavior in public health settings, schools, non-profits, and business settings. These degree programs discuss the sociology and psychology of health, the healthcare system, environmental health, and health across the lifespan. Online health education degrees are available at the certificate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level. Graduates leave these degree programs with the public speaking and communication skills to assist communities, along with the analytical and problem-solving abilities to assess their audience’s needs and plan applicable health programming.
Online bachelor’s degrees in health education are the standard requirement for entry-level positions in community health and education. Courses in these programs discuss public health, global health, public policy, social science theories, biostatistics, epidemiology, and more. Students gain insight and skills to develop strategies for improving the health of target populations. Many bachelor’s degrees in health education include project-based classes, where students get experience managing particular health promotion projects. Many also include internships or work experiences in settings like hospitals, social service agencies, and health clinics.
Online master’s degrees in health education or health promotion are great for specializing in a particular health area or entering into health education from another career. Master’s programs also vary in their focus; some are research-based, while others are based in experiential education training. Core classes focus on planning and developing health education programs, school and community health, multicultural health issues, and health research strategies.
The Doctor of Health Education (DHEd) is directed at individuals that want to gain the highest level of practical leadership and administrative skills for making an impact in health education settings. The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Health Education is based on research into health education strategies and is meant to train scholars who can develop new insight into the basis of health education.
Prospective health education degree students should be aware of the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential, which is required for hiring by some health education employers. An accredited bachelor’s degree and specific course work in health education is required to sit for this credentialing exam. Students should check with prospective online degree programs if they hope to earn the CHES credential, to make sure that a program’s specific health education curriculum is adequate preparation for the exam.
Technology is playing an ever-increasing role in today's classrooms. Everyone from kindergarten through graduate school is enjoying the benefits of computers, presentational technology, and new programs in the classroom. Some of the best teachers in today's classes are skilled at incorporating new forms of technology to enhance student learning, whether it be computer programs, tablets, or podcasts. Technology has become so important in today's classrooms that there are entire degree programs dedicated to creating new ways of including technology in one's teaching style. Both current and aspiring teachers can benefit from learning about instructional technology in a formalized degree setting.
Instructional technology degrees are usually earned as graduate degrees. Most people who become interested in this field are already educators or educational leaders, such as vice principals or curriculum developers. Students who are choosing instructional technology paths are interested in becoming better at their jobs, learning to take their techniques and skills in new directions. This makes the masters degree or the masters of education degree very popular. Students study computer programming, the teaching of computer programming, introducing students to technology, using technology paired with written literature and traditional teaching methods, and training other teachers to use technology in their classrooms.
Associate degrees and bachelor's degrees that feature an instructional technology option are more likely to be degrees in education or teaching with an instructional technology specialization option. Students will study teaching techniques, curriculum development, evaluation techniques, and classroom management, all while learning about how they can use technology to enhance their teaching skills. Some schools require that students who are applying for master's in instructional technology already have official teaching experience. Doctoral programs may even require curriculum development or teacher leadership experience.
Traditional degree programs in instructional technology revolve around group discussion, helping students build ideas off of one another. This is not easily done through online programs, so instructional technology students will be asked to complete a lot of reading and writing assignments. Many online programs (as well as some traditional programs) require that all students be full-time, licensed teachers.
To work in secondary education, one must be invested in the quality of education, be an effective and personable communicator, and be able to employ a variety of skills as you interact with school systems and students. Individuals who pursue this career path will be responsible for expanding the intellect, knowledge, and skill sets for adolescents and young adults in a variety of subjects. These careers can be demanding but very rewarding, often requiring 40 or more hours per week and devotion to continued education and training in the subject being taught. Teachers at the secondary level are expected to be experts in their fields and have the ability to instruct in it effectively.
In the United States, all teachers working in public schools must have at least a bachelor's degree and a state-recognized certification to teach. That being said, the exact requirements to work as a teacher in secondary education vary a bit state to state, so there are several different paths to certification and licensure. In most cases, students can complete a bachelor's degree in secondary education and then take a postbaccalaureate teacher preparation program that culminates in state certification. However, it is also common for prospective teachers to complete a bachelor's degree in the subject they want to teach and then return for a master's degree in secondary education, a graduate-level program that often includes the teacher preparation program. This method leads to higher pay and more universal qualification, seeing as some states require teachers to have completed master's degrees before teaching high school.
In order to enroll in a certification program, you often must have completed a bachelor's degree or be well on your way to finishing one. Many in-person certification programs and master's degrees with included certification will require a statement of purpose detailing experiences and goals in education work which will be followed by an interview. You should also visit the website of the department of education for whatever state you'd like to teach in to determine which tests you will need to take before enrolling in your program or receiving licensure.
Teaching is an in-person job in which instructors have to directly interact with students, their questions, and their concerns. For this reason, almost all programs that result in certification include an in-classroom portion, usually called supervised student teaching. Although it is possible to take secondary education courses through an online campus, those few education programs which can be done entirely online should be closely examined and reviewed against the guidelines of the state in which you want to teach. It is very possible to invest a lot of money and time into a distance education program and discover that it does not actually qualify you to teach.
Careers in secondary education include teaching through the high school level, administrative work in school or school district management, and research in pedagogy and testing methods. Any of these three careers can be achieved through a secondary education degree specialization, and only the first requires state certification. If you are interested in teaching high school students, tailoring your earlier degrees or endorsements for the subject you want to teach is the best step for your career.
Online special education degrees prepare graduates for the classroom, where they will adapt lesson plans to accommodate students with different emotional, intellectual, or physical disabilities. Bachelor’s programs provide entry-level skills for the teaching profession and often come with teacher certification. Master’s degrees can be used to study advanced skills, focus on a particular student population, or enter special education from another career. Doctorates in special education are usually aimed at experienced educators who want to complete a lengthy special education research project, prepare for teaching at the university level, or become leaders in special education policy.
An online bachelor’s degree in special education is a good option for individuals with a desire to teach in the public school system. These programs may provide a broad introduction to special education at the K-12 level, or they may focus on early childhood, elementary, or secondary education. Coursework covers the skills for developing curricula, instructing students, and evaluating students' progress. Other classes discuss classroom management, psychology and sociology of disabilities, and professional planning. The bachelor’s program also contains general education course work, as well as student-teaching work in a real classroom.
Online master’s degrees in special education can be appropriate for a few different types of students. Currently licensed teachers can use these programs to move into special education, and current special education teachers can use them to specialize in a particular area of education or deepen their sills. Master’s programs may also be entry-level teacher certification programs for students from non-education backgrounds. The master’s program usually covers the skills for using education research and taking an evidence-based approach in the classroom. Students may also be expected to complete their own research project.
The online doctorate in special education is a research-based program that trains students to become special education leaders. Experienced teachers have the chance to study the skills of educational research in depth; students learn to evaluate existing research and conduct their own research project. Most programs are also aimed at preparing graduates to become educators of future special education teachers at the college level.
In online special education programs, students complete the didactic portion of the degree through online classes, while honing their teaching skills in on-site practicums or internships. All states require that public school teachers have spent time observing experienced teachers and teaching in a real classroom setting, and this is a vital part of the degree. Master’s and doctorates may require on-site research experience as well.
All prospective teachers should investigate the specific teaching licensure requirements in their particular state before pursuing an education program. The US Department of Education has more information about individual state requirements. In many states, a bachelor’s degree in special education is sufficient to enter the classroom, while others require a master’s degree. Students should ensure that all online programs they are considering could lead to teacher licensure in the state where they hope to work. Students should also make sure that required teaching practicums and field work are available to be completed in their local community.
- Becoming a Principal or Superintendent in Texas. Texas Education Agency. Accessed October 20, 2014. http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=25769812520.
- Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/elementary-middle-and-high-school-principals.htm.
- Education, Training, and Library Occupations. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/home.htm.
- Certification. Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. State of Washington. Accessed October 20, 2014. http://www.k12.wa.us/certification/AdminMain.aspx.
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