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Distance learning is the next frontier in higher education. Advances in digital communications technology have given rise to a new generation of multimedia tools, allowing students to access the college classroom from their home computers. Streaming video and audio, online discussion boards, document sharing, and other interactive applications mimic the experience of classroom lectures and group projects.

A doctoral degree in distance education prepares you to lead the development of online learning technology and pedagogy. The PhD or EdD in Distance Education prepares you to advance the practice of e-learning while training the next generation of online educators. Doctoral graduates go on to academic careers as professors in education schools or professional careers in education administration, instructional design, or educational technology development.

Completing a PhD or EdD in Distance Education takes careful planning and vision. This guide helps you prepare for success by focusing your ambitions and executing a plan to achieve them. For more information, refer to The Insider's College Guide for Working Adults, WorldWideLearn.com's downloadable guide to college degrees for returning students.

A Guide to the PhD and EdD in Distance Education

Build a foundation for your success in the doctoral program by focusing your academic and professional goals. This guide to the PhD and EdD in Distance Education focuses on the state of the discipline today--the available doctoral degrees, specializations, and career paths. Use this guide to develop a vision of your ambitions before you tackle the logistics of applying to a PhD or EdD program in distance education.

Distance Education as an Academic Discipline

Distance education emerged as an academic discipline around the turn of the twenty-first century, in response both to rising demand for lifelong education and to new advances in digital communications technology. In the past decade, online education has seen double-digit growth in online students year after year. The most recent report by The Sloan Consortium, the leading association of online schools, cited a 12.9 percent growth rate in online enrollments in 2007. Today, over 20 percent of all higher education students are taking at least one online course.


  • WorldWideLearn.com's Degrees by Subject offers a closer look at the online degrees in distance education. For more information on online educational technology in particular, check out the Guide to Majors.
  • The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) is the original professional association dedicated to distance education research and development. Consult the Sloan-C site to learn more about the distance learning discipline, including information on advanced degrees, networking events, and advances in online education research.

Doctoral Degree Options: PhD or EdD?

You'll encounter two terminal degree options in distance education: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Education (EdD). The two doctorates are equal in rigor and status, but they diverge in emphasis:

  • The PhD in Distance Education requires original research into instructional or educational technology design. Based on the traditional social science PhD, this doctorate is designed for aspiring academics and thought leaders committed to advancing distance learning scholarship.
  • The EdD in Distance Education is a professional practice doctorate. As such, the degree emphasizes the application of existing scholarship to a particular problem in distance education. The applied EdD is ideal for professionals taking on leadership roles in the applied development and administration of online learning programs.

Find out more about the distinctions among doctoral degrees at WorldWideLearn.com's Online PhD Degrees and Doctoral Programs page.


PhD and EdD programs in distance education offer specializations in the following areas:

  • Educational Media and Technology
  • Instructional Design
  • Distance Education Pedagogy

Within these areas, you'll find subfields related to the specific types of distance education programs, issues in online learning, and levels of education. Doctoral students have considerable latitude in developing a program that reflects their research interests. Examples of research specializations include:

  • Secondary education
  • Online corporate training programs
  • Interactive educational media
  • Distance learning program evaluation
  • Distance education in a global context
  • Learning motivation

Since the distance education discipline is still in its infancy, you're in a position to shape your own research specialization. To get a sense of doctoral dissertation titles in distance education, see the Fischler School of Education's Applied Research Center Database.

Career Track

An online PhD or EdD in Education prepares you for leadership roles in academia and professional practice. Some of the career tracks doctoral graduates pursue include:

  • Educational administrator positions such as online program director or dean
  • Teaching positions as an academic professor or online education instructor
  • Research positions in private educational foundations
  • Consulting roles in instructional design
  • Educational specialist jobs for instructional technology companies

How to Apply for the PhD or EdD in Distance Education

Armed with a sense of your academic and career ambitions, you're ready to kick off the application process. The following guide takes you through the logistics of preparing for graduate school, from researching programs to submitting your application.

Find the Right Graduate Distance Education Program

With more and more institutions offering advanced degrees in distance education, educational technology, and online instructional design, it can be difficult to identify the graduate distance education programs that suit you best. The following four steps will help you research schools and find that perfect fit.

Step One: Develop a List of Accredited Programs

Begin your quest for the right school by developing a master list of accredited doctoral programs in distance education. Accreditation is a critical baseline requirement for anyone investing in a doctoral education. Independent accreditation agencies conduct regular program evaluations to validate the quality of a school's education and the value of the degree. There are a number of national and regional accrediting agencies representing campus and online programs. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved accreditation agencies. Be sure to research the accreditation process to be sure you're choosing a doctorate program that's a good fit for your career goals.


Online directories and accrediting agency member lists offer good starting points for your research. Since most distance education doctorates are offered online, specialized online education accreditation agency Web sites can lead you to graduate distance education programs

  • WorldWideLearn.com features a database of accredited online PhD and EdD programs in distance education. Search Degrees by Subject or browse a list of university partners
  • The Distance Education and Training Council is the leading national accrediting agency for distance learning programs, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Use this comprehensive list to verify the accreditation status of online distance education doctoral programs
  • The Distance Learning Accreditation Board accredits online programs in distance education

Step Two: Online or Campus PhD in Distance Education?

As befits the academic discipline, most PhD and EdD programs in distance education are offered online. The online format is not only convenient for working professionals, but also enables a productive crossover between learning and doing. Academic and professional doctoral candidates both benefit from firsthand exposure to online learning technology. EdD students already working in education administration or distance education benefit the most from an online doctorate, since they have access to a real-world laboratory for applying their theoretical studies.

Campus PhD programs in distance education do offer some key benefits for aspiring academics conducting original research. The primary advantage is access to campus facilities: computer labs, quantitative and qualitative research facilities, and library collections. In addition, campus programs foster close relationships among faculty and peers. Given the importance of faculty mentorships, teaching assistantships, and a community network to an academic career, campus programs offer a compelling alternative to online education.


  • WorldWideLearn.com's Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections help you find programs with the delivery format that best meets your circumstances and career goals. If you opt for a campus format, search campus degrees by location.

Step Three: Explore Academic Programs

Especially in an emerging field like distance education, it's crucial to find a fit between your interests and a program's academic resources. Each school offers a different set of courses, programs, and faculty experts to support your research aims.

To determine whether a program matches your particular academic profile, explore the following features:

  • Faculty research and areas of expertise
  • Program specializations
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Special resources such as internships, research foundations, partnerships and sponsorships, publications, academic associations, and events


  • WorldWideLearn.com takes some of the legwork out of the program research process by matching you with schools that meet your specifications. Simply fill out an online form indicating your academic program criteria, and the system puts you in touch with representatives from matching schools. These counselors can answer your questions about the program and identify potential faculty mentors whose interests match your own.
  • School Web sites offer a wealth of resources describing the program's resources and academic emphases. Find faculty bios and CVs, course reading lists, past dissertation titles, as well as links to research, school-sponsored publications, and department events.
  • Academic Publications can point you to leading universities and faculty in your field of interest. Some of the major academic journals in distance education include: Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Distance Learning magazine, USDLA Quarterly Journal, and the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN).
    • The International Center for Distance Learning Research and Praxis (ICDLRP), sponsored by the USDLA, supports distance education research with a mandate to "guide the development of policy and applications for distance learning." Consult this site to learn about cutting-edge research in the field of online education.

    Step Four: Evaluate Program Quality

    Finally, focus your list by evaluating the relative merits of different programs. Some of the factors to consider include:

    • Reputation
    • Selectivity
    • Graduation Rate
    • Job Placement Statistics
    • Career Support Resources
    • Student Body Profile

    Keep in mind that the schools with the best reputation and program quality will also be the most selective. The challenge is to find high-quality programs within your reach as an applicant. Admissions departments take into account your undergraduate GPA, test scores, work experience, and professional recommendations when evaluating your application.


    • Rankings offer quick insight into a school's reputation and selectivity. U.S. News & World Report offers a general ranking of the Best Education Schools, and the Center for Measuring University Performance publishes an annual guide to top-ranked research universities
    • Admissions department data sheets serve as the most reliable source of information on the graduate student experience, with statistics on job placement, career choice, graduate student demographics, and more
    • A Campus visit gives you an inside look at the available campus facilities and affords the opportunity to meet with potential faculty mentors, peers, and admissions counselors

    Preparing for a PhD in Distance Education

    Once you've identified graduate distance education programs that meet your specifications, applying to a doctoral program becomes a matter of following instructions. The following steps represent standard requirements for applying to a campus or online PhD in Distance Education. Contact admissions counselors or visit the school Web site for an exact list of prerequisites and application requirements.

    1. Prerequisites

      Standard prerequisites for an online or campus doctorate in distance education include:

      • A bachelor's or master's degree in education, educational technology, or a related field. You may be able to substitute prerequisite coursework for an education degree--contact an admissions counselor for more information.
      • Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and TOEFL (for non-native speakers of English). Some schools accept the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) in lieu of the GRE.

      2. Application Requirements

        Compile and submit the following materials with your application:

        • Academic transcripts
        • Academic or professional letters of recommendation
        • Test scores
        • Personal statement of research interests and career goals
        • Resume and list of publications, if applicable

        3. Financial Aid

          Most doctoral programs offer some financial aid to graduate students, in the form of fellowships, research grants, teaching and research assistantships, and tuition waivers.

          Other sources of financial aid include:

          • Private scholarships
          • Employer grants or sponsorships
          • Federal or private loans

          For more information on financial aid, visit WorldWideLearn.com's graduate education funding resource page.

          WorldWideLearn.com also features an Education Resources Guide to help you prepare for graduate school. The guide includes information on test preparation, prerequisite courses, online learning strategies, and financial aid.

          Joining the Academic Community

          The PhD or EdD in Distance Education represents not only the highest qualification in the field, but also a unique opportunity to network with other professionals who share your interest in online education and distance learning. Reach out to the academic community now by joining professional associations, attending conferences, and subscribing to academic journals.

          Distance education is an exciting field in need of trained leaders. By developing a vision of your professional goals now, you're building a foundation for success in the doctoral program.


          • Capella University, Doctor of Philosophy in Education: Instructional Design for Online Learning Specialization
          • The Center for Measuring University Performance, Reports and Other Staff Publications
          • Fischler School of Education and Human Services, EdD Concentration in Instructional Technology and Distance Education
          • Regent University School of Education, EdD Distance Education Cognate
          • The Sloan Consortium, Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008
          • The Sloan Consortium of Institutions and Organizations Committed to Quality Online Education (Sloan-C)
          • United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA)
          • U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
          • U.S. News & World Report, Best Graduate Schools in Education

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