Considering Online Master’s Degrees

by Martin Zabell

Working teachers often have trouble pursuing traditional graduate studies due to time and other constraints. The many online master’s in education degree programs bring this goal within reach.

While the traditional course of study of a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree is still the usual path to a teaching job, many teachers today begin their teaching careers without that important master’s. If you are among these teachers, perhaps you have reached the point at which pursuing a master’s degree in education has become the most important professional goal in your life, but you just don’t have the time to take courses on a traditional college campus. Perhaps you do not want to take time off from work, your spouse’s schedule requires you to spend a lot of time taking care of the children, or the commute to the nearest quality college campus is burdensome. Fortunately, there is a solution to these problems: online master’s in education programs.

According to “Best Online Graduate Education Programs,” an article in U.S. News & World Report, 253 American colleges offer such programs. More than two dozen of these schools are Catholic schools. How popular are online master’s in education programs? Quite popular. Aslanian Market Research and The Learning House, Inc. report that roughly 22 percent of online graduate students are education students, according to the article “4 Challenges of Pursuing an Online Graduate Degree in Education.”

“Online programs are growing nationwide exponentially,” says Amy Bergstrom, director of the master’s in education program at The College of St. Scholastica, which is in Duluth, MN, and is ranked as the third best Catholic school on the U.S. News & World Report list. Bergstrom told us, “The rate of graduate students is growing and graduate students tend to enroll at higher rates in online programs. Adult learners—those who are either career changers or are advancing in their career by enrolling in a graduate program—are those that enroll at higher rates in online programs.” Most of the schools we contacted started their online programs within a few years of 2000. The programs became successful with regard to enrollment because many master’s in education students are already teachers and, thus, have full-time jobs. “Most of our programs require student candidates to have a teaching degree, so online programs meet the demands of their work and life responsibilities,” explained Fern Aefsky, the chairperson of the Graduate Education Programat Saint Leo (FL) University.
Online Standards Are High

The fact that online master’s in education programs are popular doesn’t automatically mean they are effective, but seven administrators and teachers we contacted assert that they are just as effective as on-campus programs. The most important test of effectiveness is whether schools that hire graduates of an online program are satisfied with the graduates’ skills and whether they continue to hire online students. Several years ago, online students had difficulty getting hired because many states wouldn’t certify them. That’s much less of a problem today because so many quality schools have online programs. In short, the graduate school matters. David Carbonara, the director of the master’s in education instructional technology program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, said that high schools—locally, nationally, and worldwide—have been hiring his school’s online students for several years. When administrators phone Duquesne about a prospective hire, he said, they don’t ask whether the student has taken online courses. His colleague, Duquesne professor of education Joseph Kush, said the method of instruction is less crucial than a school’s curriculum and faculty. “It’s more a question of the quality of the institution,” added Kush. “The good schools are going to have good online programs.”

Arlington, VA-based Marymount University has had an online master’s in education program for full-time administrators and teachers since 2001 “to meet the needs primarily of Catholic schools,” said Sister Patricia Helene Earl, the director of the school’s Catholic School Leadership Program. “All of our graduates are now either principals, assistant principals, or serve in other leadership roles.”

Some students, however, might be concerned about whether they can graduate from an online program with their work schedules. At this point there is little data on whether online or on-campus graduate school students have a higher graduation rate. Carbonara said Duquesne tries to mitigate prospective online students’ potential problems by meeting with them before they are accepted to ascertain whether they are the right fit for the school’s program. Prospective students who want to figure out an online program’s quality should look at five factors: student engagement, student services and technology, faculty credentials and training, admissions selectivity, and peer reputation. The teachers and administrators we interviewed were consistent in expressing their belief that online students are just as academically qualified as on-campus students. “(Loyola’s) admissions requirements are identical for on-campus and online students,” reported Diane Blair, the manager of admissions and campus services for Loyola University New Orleans’s Loyola Institute for Ministry, which awards master’s in religious education degrees to students who attend the New Orleans school. Mathew Mitchell, the coordinator of the University of San Francisco’s online Digital Technologies for Teaching and Learning master’s program, added that online and on-campus students are given the same amount of time to complete the master’s program and that admissions standards for the two groups of students are “exactly the same.”


Online Students Interact with Teachers

It’s possible that while online students could be just as academically qualified as on-campus students at the start of a master’s in education program and just as likely to be hired after they graduate, they might still not have as good an experience in their education. The administrators and professors quoted here, though, assert that online students receive the same high-quality education as on-campus students although their learning methods are different. “The ‘out-of-class’ activities for both sets of students are exactly the same,” said Mitchell about the program at San Francisco. “The ‘in-class’ activities are the same, but the process tends to be different. In-class activities are typically done in small groups with some exceptions for individual and paired work, and also whole-group discussions. Online activities (have) the same ‘challenges’ but (they’re) done individually, sometimes done with others via non-synchronous electronic means.” In fact, students in online programs can take on-campus courses and on-campus students can take online courses at some colleges. At Loyola, the programs are “completely interchangeable,” said Blair.

The bottom line is that the negative connotation that online programs once had is no longer accurate, said Carbonara. “The research around best practices in online teaching and learning has grown, and now the online experience in most cases is just as comprehensive and rigorous as on-ground programs,” said St. Scholastica’s Bergstrom. Administrators and professors stress that online students interact with teachers and other students. Carbonara said Duquesne’s students interact with instructors “constantly” via several methods. They interact synchronously, which means that they are online at the same time as the teachers who are responding to students immediately and vice versa. They also interact asynchronously, which means that students and teachers can leave messages for each other on a discussion board to be read later on. Duquesne’s online students also interact with classmates and teachers at online meeting and class times. “In many cases, the online students have more frequent and more immediate contact with their instructors (than on-campus students),” said Carbonara. At San Francisco, teachers give students feedback regularly on their blog posts and other work. At Loyola, students and teachers interact regularly via online discussions and “live” sessions with the entire class. At Marymount, students and teachers interact via chats, a class discussion board, and videoconferencing. At St. Leo, every teacher has virtual office hours “where students and faculty are in a live conversation together,” said Aefsky. At St. Scholastica, students have an “incredible amount of interaction,” said Bergstrom. “Our faculty are engaged in their courses on some level on a daily basis, respond to emails within a 24-hour time period, offer at least three synchronous class meetings, and hold online office hours and offer students a consistent video presence as well,” she said.

Students Support Each Other

Online students not only interact with each other, they also interact with the on-campus students at more than a few schools. At San Francisco, students do paired work and small-group work online. Duquesne has three curricula: student to teacher, student to content, and student to student. At Marymount, students form a cohort, “helping each other not only while in the program, but also after graduation,” according to Sister Earl. At Loyola, peer support is mandatory. “Students are required to interact with other students in their individual classes through discussion of questions posed by the instructor,” reported Blair. “They have to respond to other students’ postings in the discussion.” Information on precisely how qualified the teachers of online programs are in comparison to the teachers of on-campus programs was more difficult to obtain, but Carbonara did detail how Duquesne professors are trained to teach online students, and the rankings give prospective students a guide on which schools have highly credentialed teachers. As good as online master’s in education programs are now, it’s likely that they will continue to improve in the future as they’re relatively new, and research on which programs have been most effective can only help future teachers and administrators. In the meantime, it’s clear that they have expanded the pool of teachers who years ago might not have been able to pursue a teaching degree.

Administrators from Duquesne, Loyola, and Marymount all stressed that people of all ages are enrolled in their online master’s in education programs as well as career-switchers from numerous professions and people who live far away from their schools. Marymount had a 67-year-old student, but Loyola beat that. “I just worked with a student who wants to finish his degree before his 80th birthday in a few years,” reported Blair.



Best Online Graduate Education Programs. U.S. News & World Report.

What Employers Think of Your Online Master’s in Education. U.S. News & World Report. Feb. 13, 2015.

4 Challenges of Pursuing an Online Graduate Degree in Education. U.S. News & World Report. June 1, 2015.

Experts Debate Graduation Rates for Online Students. U.S. News & World Report. Jan. 30, 2015.

Methodology: Best Online Graduate Education Programs Rankings. U.S. News & World Report. Jan. 6, 2015.

Why I Chose Online Education: Dalene Erickson. U.S. News & World Report. Jan. 12, 2012.

Top 10 Best Online Master’s in Education Degree Programs 2015. Grad School Hub. May 2015.

Top 10 Online Master’s in Education Degree Programs (M.Ed.) Best Degree Programs.

Top Masters in Education Releases 2015 Ranking of Best Value Online Masters in Education Degree Programs.


Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, January/February 2016