Continuing Education | In Print

5 Tips for Choosing an Online Masters of Education Program

Twenty-four years ago, at a time when many would have struggled to describe the internet in even the most conceptual terms, George Washington University (DC) launched its online Educational Technology Leadership Program, one of the first of its kind. Today, the online directory lists nearly 50 online graduate programs in educational technology.

Their popularity continues to grow along with the demand for educators who are prepared to use new technologies in teaching and administration. At the same time, a number of issues animate the discussion around educational technology that were not even a consideration a quarter of a century ago. What makes for an effective online master's program in ed tech has clearly evolved over the years.

T.H.E. Journal Contributing Editor Jan Fletcher spoke with instructors and administrators in online ed tech programs and identified five critical elements of any online master's programs in education technology that you should look for when evaluating which program is right for you.

1) The Right Focus
Master's programs in educational technology vary in their academic focus from institution to institution. Make sure the program you're investigating covers what you want to learn. "Some [programs] will lead you toward designing learning technology or designing instruction," says Cindy Pancer, an instructor for Jones International University, in Centennial, CO. "Yet, teachers may be more interested in promoting the integration of technology in classroom instruction, or providing alternatives for K-12 students to enhance their learning using technology."

Regardless of the specific focus, Pancer advises that the program should at the very least address in its curriculum the International Society for Technology in Education's (ISTE) national standards for teachers, which describe "the fundamental concept, knowledge, skills, and attitude for applying technology in educational settings."

2) Strong Onboarding Process
Onboarding, a term often used to describe the process of shepherding a new employee into an organization or school, also could be used to encapsulate the entire process of acclimating a new student to an online program's social structure. There should be "something intentional about the way you get onboarded," says Sue Talley, an associate dean in the School of Undergraduate Studies at Capella University, an online institution based in Minneapolis.

Talley adds that research has shown that creating a sense of engagement for students in the first few weeks is very important. For example, a program might bring new students together for an initial in-person meet-up, or invite everyone to join a special LinkedIn group to make introductions and network.

Students who are new to online learning may have a preconceived notion that it is a very asocial experience, Talley says, "but the actual experience is much richer, because we're bringing people together."

Additionally, if the new-student orientation does include an in-person orientation, that opportunity for creating a sense of camaraderie should not be squandered on imparting core knowledge more readily available by disseminating a PDF, book, or video, says Mark Stevens of the National Education Association and general manager of the NEA Academy in Washington, DC, which has recently conducted research on online ed tech programs (see "Elements of an Effective Ed-Tech Program" on page 2). "That isn't the best use of your time in a face-to-face environment," he says.

3) Community Engagement
Those looking for a quality graduate educational technology program might consider it an honor to be accepted at a high-profile institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University (CA), but they shouldn't automatically assume those are the places that will best support you as a learner. 

"Those are not necessarily the best programs for people to go into, because the people there are often more interested in their own research, or doing their own thing, than really helping students to develop," Talley says.

What's more important is to find the learning community that matches up well with your learning needs--and will grow with you. "It's more about whether or not that group of faculty, and the people they attract to their program, are really able to pull together as a community and learn together about whatever is coming up," she says.

The concept of building that adaptable community becomes more vital as the use of social media and web 2.0 tools becomes more prevalent in K-12 education. "If the program itself doesn't really understand the building of community, then I think they're missing an important part of understanding about technology, and using technology as part of education," Talley says.

4) Collaborative Infrastructure
Beyond finding a solid community of like-minded educators to join, prospective students should also identify a program with a robust, user-friendly platform for sharing ideas that matches the way the student prefers to communicate. As part of the NEA's research into effective programs, Stevens says the organization looked into what he calls "the social media aspect," which included elements such as threaded discussions and work groups, and examined whether those were embedded in the actual courses themselves. It also asked if there was any place in which students could share information from a research perspective, rather than from an e-mail or threaded discussion.

The NEA study looked closely at which institutions were actually offering varying levels of collaboration. While the study ultimately concluded each program has a collaborative model, Stevens says "no two institutions do it the same way."

5) Flexible Curriculum 
Since technology is almost always in a state of flux, a program's curriculum should be as well. Talley says it's important for an educational technology program to be flexible--not just because of the changeable nature of the field--but because it also prepares teachers to respond to change.

In particular, students should look at exactly how the program adapts when new technology, like Twitter or cloud computing, takes hold, as well as how instructors and learners integrate new technology as it is emerging. Another way to gauge flexibility is to explore how many of the instructors personally use emerging technologies in their teaching.

"In other words," Talley says, "if a program and the faculty aren't flexible enough to adapt to new things as they appear, the program will soon stagnate and you'll be learning about last decade's concepts for educational technology." 

Pancer advises teachers to look for programs whose faculty members have previously helped schools through technological transitions--and then seek those faculty members out as mentors. "If the faculty has done something that promotes change, then I'd say they would be a good role model for people that are going for an ed-tech degree," she says.

Elements of an Effective Ed-Tech Program 

The NEA Academy in Washington, DC, recently conducted extensive research on what makes for an effective online educational technology program. The research has not yet been made available to the public but, according to a report summarizing the research, the NEA's criteria, divided into four categories, "comprise a quality rubric that serves as a guideline for assessing online degree programs." Principally, these criteria include:

Institutional quality and engagement: "The quality of a higher education institution is measured in many ways," reads the report. "As its foundation, the institution must adhere to ethical business practices." Prospective students should be easily able to verify not only tuition and fees, but other relevant financial information as well, including disclosure of student loan default rates and the percentage of its budget spent on marketing. Students should have convenient access to statistics on program completion rates, diversity, and leadership structure, including the ratio of administrators to faculty.

Content and program quality: Prospective students should look for programs that align with current research in professional development and online education. These programs should also have a process for quality review. There should be options for addressing variations in student learning styles and transparency regarding evaluation and assessment procedures, including an adequate dispute resolution process for students and faculty. 

Accreditation: Most students will want to ensure that their degree program is accredited by regional agencies and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the NEA's standard for accreditation. Schools must also provide clear descriptions of all the licensure and certificates they offer, if any, and support students who are seeking them. 

Student services: Online programs should provide all the support services expected of brick-and-mortar universities, such as assistance with enrollment, financial aid, and career planning, as well as access to school counselors. In addition, online programs are responsible for support in relation to their unique environment, providing students with resources for online learning readiness, technical support via computer and telephone, and access to online and print media necessary for course completion.

For more information on the criteria, visit