When Patricia Samuels finished her bachelor's degree in special education back in 2007, she knew she had more classes in store.
The Orlando, Florida resident wanted to work with students with disabilities, but felt like she didn't get enough course work on the subject in undergrad. So she looked for a master's program with a focus on special education -- and one she could complete while juggling a full-time teaching load at a local charter school.
Instead of signing up for an on-campus program, Samuels ended up going straight from her under graduate degree to earning an online master's in special education from Florida State University. "To me, a master's is a master's," says Samuels, who teachers kindergarten and first grade. "Employers care that you have the degree and that you have the knowledge -- they don't care if you got it online."
Samuels is likely on to something. As online programs have grown in popularity, online master's in education degrees have become more acceptable, experts say. But some programs are more respected than others. As a result, prospective students looking to use the credential for a pay bump or career switch should do some investigating before they enroll.
[Find out how to get into a top online master's in education program.]
When it comes to choosing the right online master's degree in education, experts say the reputation of the program matters more than the mode of instruction, regardless of specialty.
"I think we're still in a space where the institution granting the online degree continues to have some sway in at least its perceived value," says Catherine Horn, associate education professor at the University of Houston, ranked the No. 1 online graduate education program by U.S. News in 2015.
In some cases, Horn says, schools don't even indicate the mode of instruction on degrees and transcripts, which means school officials only see the program or school name anyway.
Even in cases where an online degree is obvious, it rarely matters in public school districts, experts say. In the K-12 world, at least, online master's degrees in education are so common that employers don't think of them much at all, Horn says. Those in hiring positions who have been to school recently have taken a blended or fully online course, so they know the classes can be just as rigorous as their on-campus counterparts.
Jeff Cravy, who is in charge of hiring teachers as principal of South Whidbey Elementary School in Washington, says he doesn't think twice about whether applicants earned an online degree or not. He earned his master's in education through Western Governors University back in 2003, and says it was a great experience.
[Beware of these six signs of a bad online instructor.]
"I haven't had a bad experience with anyone who has been trained at a specific online college," he says. For him, it's more about whether a teacher has current credentials, fits the needs of the position and makes a good impression during the interview.
While some say online master's degrees are growing in acceptance, prospective students still need to think through their choices.
Finding an accredited school is key, experts say. At Fort Wayne Community Schools, one of Indiana's largest school districts, officials don't care whether prospective employees studied online as long as they did so at an accredited school, says Krista Stockman, the district's public information officer.
Claudia Rinaldi, chairwoman of the education department at Lasell College, says students should also be cautious about license requirements.
Teachers who already have a license will be fine to pursue an online master's degree, but those who want to become a teacher through the program or get an endorsement for their license for a different subject or area to advance their career will have to do a little digging, she says. Most master's programs that lead to initial teaching certification require a student teaching component, which needs to be supervised by university faculty and can be tough to pull off if a student is in a different state than the school, she says.
Students who look closely will find that some online programs will say outright that they may or may not lead to licensure, which is why it's important for students to know whether their education will meet their state's criteria for their desired position.
"Students should really look at what their goal is in a master's program," she says. "If they are looking to increase their knowledge level, then an online master's will do -- if they are looking to get an additional endorsement, it is critical that they look at the requirements of the state."
[Determine whether your online program is accredited.]
Eugenia Mora-Flores, associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, says the online Master of Arts in Teaching program at her school has found a way to help teachers get first teaching credentials. Students in the program record themselves student teaching and then submit the videos to a faculty member, called their guided practice instructor, she says.
Students who graduate from the program are eligible for a California teaching credential. If students need a credential or a license in another state, credential analysts and student support personnel work with them to make that happen, she says.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.