Online master’s programs help students like Corey Carroll II balance their education with their day jobs. (Jason Hornick for Express)

Corey Carroll II wants to help shape education policy. But to effectively do that, he knows he has to educate himself first.

He started by becoming a teacher. “I had to see what education looked like firsthand,” says Carroll, 22, who teaches history at Central High School in Capitol Heights, Md. “And it’s been a real eye-opener.”

This August, he launched phase two of his plan, starting American University’s new online master of education in education policy and leadership program.

“I was kind of skeptical of going to an online graduate program,” he admits. “I feel like I need to see my professors, that I need to be in class. But on top of teaching every day, there was just no time for me to make it into a classroom.”

Online graduate degrees in education have become a popular choice for busy professionals interested in careers in teaching, administration or education policy. “Interest has definitely been increasing, even in our cohort programs that have had a long-standing tradition of face-to-face instruction,” says Pamela Hudson Baker, director of the division of special education and disability research at George Mason University.

Online programs help expand access to graduate degrees in education, an important element of meeting the demand for qualified educators in this country. According to a 2016 report from the nonprofit education research group Learning Policy Institute, the United States could find itself as many as 112,000 teachers short by 2018 if teacher supply doesn’t change.

Those numbers are one reason American University established its three new online graduate programs in education. In addition to its master of education program in education policy and leadership that launched in August, its online master of arts in teaching and master of arts in special education with a focus on learning disabilities begin in January.

“We talk a lot about accessibility when it comes to [younger] students, and we believe that same access should be there for graduate students,” says Julie Sara Boyd, assistant dean for online education in the School of Education at American University.

American’s new online programs use the same curriculum and faculty as their corresponding on-campus graduate programs (which will also continue), which have a proven track record of success. According to Boyd, the university has a 100 percent placement rate for graduating teachers and a 93 to 96 percent placement rate for graduates going into education policy. “That, along with the demand for teachers, were the biggest motivators in taking our programs online and reaching a wider audience,” she says. “Why should only people who live here have access to the quality of experts that are in this area?”

The ability to learn from folks who have worked on major education policies was a definite draw for Carroll. And he’s already seen the benefits of having fellow students from a variety of geographic regions and backgrounds.

“We have people who live in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Texas and who work for nonprofits or state and district offices,” he says. “I can already tell that once we get to debating ideas and having great conversations, it’s going to be so effective. I can truly say that this program is probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Working in education requires a lot of interpersonal skills, and these online programs make sure those skills are developed even if students aren’t sitting in the same room. Students often connect in real time for live, synchronous class sessions via video chats using web conferencing programs like Blackboard Collaborate. Or they discuss group assignments in online forums or via email or recorded video. Baker says that all of these methods offer insight on these future educators’ temperaments and personalities.
“You get a real sense of their professionalism and compassion in the way they respond to ideas from other people and the situations presented to them,” she says.

“I never realized how much intimacy there could be in a video chat,” Carroll says. “Everyone’s in comfortable clothes; some people are eating, some are [looking after] their kids. Everyone’s having a life, which makes it so much more personable and relatable.”

To keep up with technology, George Mason University is currently revamping two of its online graduate certificate programs in special education, one with a focus on applied behavior analysis and another with a focus on autism spectrum disorders. Both will be relaunched in January. They can be earned on their own or as concentration areas for students enrolled in the school’s special education online master’s degree program.

“I am optimistic that we are going to see our reach extend beyond the borders of the D.C. metro area as we move forward,” Baker says. “And it’s always better to extend opportunities to more people, in order to create the chance that you’ll enhance diversity and bring people into the profession who really can make a difference but may not have had access before.”

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