Distance Education Master's Programs Are Rare, but Important

Despite a rising need for online education leaders, not many universities offer master's programs in the field.

by / October 24, 2012 0
While the need for distance education leaders is on the rise, only a handful of U.S. universities offer master's programs in the field. "Portrait image" via Shutterstock

Only a handful of master's programs focus on training distance education leaders and instructional technologists, despite a rising need for these positions.

A Google search reveals only three U.S. master's programs that include distance education in their title. Canada's Athabasca University does have a Master of Education in Distance Education.

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville started an online Master of Science in Distance Education Leadership this fall. The University of Maryland University College has had an online Master of Distance Education and E-Learning program for 12 years. And Nova Southeastern University in Florida has offered an online Master of Science in Instructional Technology and Distance Education since 1996.

"I'm a little amazed that there is reluctance on some universities' part to enter into the field," said Michael Simonson, professor of instructional technology and distance education at Nova Southeastern University.

Distance education skills

After conducting a needs assessment, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville discovered that there was a tremendous gap in distance education training, said Candace Croft, coordinator of the university's Master of Science in Distance Education Leadership. Distance education leaders require slightly different management and administration skill sets than they do on physical campuses.

"We really did not find that there was a critical mass of programs out there that would provide that knowledge and skill set for a virtual education leader or administrator," Croft said.

The skill sets that distance education leaders need include managing a team of faculty from afar, understanding how to evaluate faculty in online classrooms and how to track operations in a virtual environment, Croft said.

"This is really looking at an entirely new scenario and preparing leaders and administrators in that virtual education environment with a complete skill set," Croft said.

The leadership skills required for other jobs are the same in distance education, said Stella Porto, director and professor in the Master of Distance Education and E-Learning program at the University of Maryland University College. They will have to balance quality of education, access for students and cost. And vision is especially important.

"We want these fundamentals to be solid, but they really have to have their eyes on what's happening in the future," Porto said. "A lot of them will be working in scenarios that we can't foresee right now."

Community colleges in particular will require distance learning leaders to manage distance learning units and support faculty who teach online.

"Mostly when faculty come to teach online, what the institutions are looking for is their expertise in their subject matter; they don't need expertise in distance education," Porto said. "So what you need in that sense is people that will provide the support to these people that will teach online." 

Even though only a few master's programs exist, distance education certificate programs have been increasing to meet those needs, Porto said. Many of these smaller programs focus on specific areas such as teaching at a distance or how to design instruction in distance education.

Instructional designers wanted

Instructional designers who can work with distance education environments are in high demand, said Simonson from Nova Southeastern University. The university created a master's program as a bridge to its doctoral program on instructional design in distance education. And the 350 doctoral students and 30 to 35 master's students it graduates each year all have jobs. 

"Interestingly enough, the master's degree instructional designer who has skills in instructional design, has skills in digital media, has skills in assessment — they're as rare as hen's teeth, as my dad used to say," Simonson said.

These designers learn how to build a program around a conceptual framework that will be effective and relevant, no matter what software or hardware tools change. They start with Dick and Carey's instructional design model and look at other models as well. In the online environment, graduates divide the instructional content of a course into units and sub-topics called modules. Then they identify critical topics and look at what technology they need

This concept is part of a general move away from technology-based delivery systems to design-based systems that don't depend on a platform such as a learning management system.

"Instead of designing everything to fit into Angel or fit into Blackboard, the trend is: Let's design a course that can fit into any delivery mechanism," Simonson said.

There is a huge need for people with e-learning training, and there's not enough awareness about it, Porto said. Especially with the popularity of massively open online courses this year, people are developing courses by recording one-hour video lectures. They think their method will work. But anyone who has studied distance education knows that's not a part of best practices, Porto said.

"For those who have been doing this and who have learned the theories and the fundamentals of the field, it's almost laughable to hear some of the statements that are going on," Porto said.

That's why training about online learning is so important. Graduates of the Maryland program are valued because they know which theories work based on research.

As distance education continues to mushroom, at least three U.S. universities are training educators through master's programs in the field, others are providing certificates in increasing numbers, and the field continues to move toward technology-agnostic instructional design.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.