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Online learning is booming. According to a Babson College study, more than 7.1 million students took at least one online class in 2013, which is about 6 percent more than the previous year. As online courses -- including free massively open online courses, or MOOCs -- become more prevalent, the share of students enrolled in them will likely grow.

Teaching online is different from teaching in traditional classrooms, however. Instructors must have a keen understanding of the different types of technologies that make such learning possible and know how to collaborate with and engage students they may never even see. Distance education programs can help educators master the nuances of teaching online.

What are distance education degree programs?

As the popularity of online learning grows, so does the demand for professionals who can effectively design and lead online courses. Distance education degree and certificate programs can help education professionals hone those skills. These programs are often tailored for students already working in education; so many applicants may already have at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field like teaching or education administration.

Distance Learning

Courses vary, but often cover education technology, online instruction, ethics and more. The range and depth of these courses depends on the type of credential earned; a doctoral student's schedule will likely look much different from that of one pursuing professional certification.

Some programs allow students to specialize their credentials. At the University Of Maryland University College, for instance, students earning a master's of education and e-learning can choose to specialize in distance education technology; online teaching and training; or distance education policy and management. Prospective students can contact schools directly to learn more about their options.

Which professionals benefit from distance education programs?

Teachers leading online courses could benefit from distance education programs, but they are not the only ones.

The following are just a few of the professionals who might pursue this type of training, along with key career and education trends, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • High school teachers: Online learning is not just a college thing. Online high schools can be an educational lifeline for students who move often, who live in remote areas or simply do not thrive in traditional classroom environments. Online high school teachers ensure these students can master the same material as those attending brick-and-mortar institutions. Public high school teachers -- online or otherwise -- must have at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field and be licensed by the state. Requirements at private institutions tend to be more flexible.

    Secondary school teachers, according to BLS numbers, made a median annual income of $55,360 in 2013, with the bottom 10 percent of earners bringing in $37,320 and $86,720 for the top 10 percent.

    The BLS projects that demand for high school teachers will grow slower than the average for all U.S. occupations between 2012 and 2022. Distance education programs can expand candidates' options, giving them a potential edge in a competitive field.

  • College professors: Schools of all types can offer online courses, but they are especially common at the postsecondary level. Educational requirements vary tremendously from one institution to the next, but most college-level instructors have at least a master's degree in a relevant field.

    The BLS projects that demand for postsecondary instructors will grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2012 and 2022, but competition for full time and tenure-track positions will remain fierce. Additional training through distance education programs may help set candidates apart, especially at institutions hoping to expand their online enrollments.

  • Postsecondary education administrators: College administrators direct an institution's student services, academics and faculty research. At some colleges, these professionals may also be asked to develop and oversee online degree programs. While a bachelor's degree in a relevant field is acceptable for some entry-level positions, the BLS notes that some colleges prefer to hire those with either a master's degree or Ph.D.

    BLS numbers place median annual income for postsecondary education administrators at $87,410 in 2013.

    Demand for college administrators will grow faster than the average for all occupations nationally between 2012 and 2022, according to BLS numbers, but that demand may be even greater at online schools. Additional training in distance education might be a major resume booster for those applying to schools with online programs.

Professionals in the roles listed above may benefit additional training in distance education, but so might those who work in the private training sector. As companies adopt online employee training programs, they may prefer to hire trainers skilled in distance learning.

Potential students can research this field by visiting the BLS online, through their employers, or by contacting schools offering related programs directly.

"High School Teachers," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
"25-2031 Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 12, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252031.htm
"Master of Distance Education and E-Learning," University of Maryland at University College, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/masters-degrees/distance-education.cfm
"Online college courses still popular, but rate of growth has slowed, says Babson study," Boston Globe, Januar 15, 2014, Jaclyn Reiss, http://www.boston.com/yourcampus/news/babson/2014/01/online_college_courses_still_popular_but_rate_of_growth_has_slowed_says_babson_study.html
"Postsecondary Education Administrators," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/postsecondary-education-administrators.htm
"11-9033 Education Administrators, Postsecondary," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 12, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes119033.htm
"Postsecondary Teachers," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Postsecondary-teachers.htm

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