What to Expect from an Online Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) Program
In some ways online programs tend to be identical to their on-campus counterparts, and in other ways they tend to be completely different.
In 1999, an emeritus University of North Carolina professor named Thomas L. Russell published a book, The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, summarizing 355 academic studies (dating back to 1928) that collectively found “no significant difference” in the effectiveness of courses taken by distance learning versus otherwise identical courses taken on campus.
But no significant difference in effectiveness does not mean no significant difference in student experience or methodology. There are many differences, ranging in importance from minor to profound, between online programs and on-campus programs. We’ll go over a few of them here.
Time to Completion: How Long are Online Ed.D. Programs?
Ed.D. programs generally represent at least 57 semester hours of graduate credit beyond the master’s degree. If we follow the conventional wisdom that says each semester hour takes a student 45 hours to earn, this means every Ed.D. program involves at least 2,565 hours of active, focused study. If you could somehow complete all of this work at an uninterrupted steady pace without eating, sleeping, or even resting to digest the material, beginning on January 1st, it would still take you until April 18th to make it to the end. That’s a lot of material to cover, and there are no shortcuts.
So whether you study just as fast as most people or more slowly, there’s no getting around the fact that an Ed.D. program is a massive undertaking. In many ways, you should be a different person when you complete the program than you were when you began it. This is no less true of regionally accredited online programs than it is of on-campus programs.
You are unlikely to find very many online Ed.D. programs that can be completed in less than three years, and you are unlikely to find any that can be completed in less than two. Duquesne University’s online Ed.D. in Instructional Technology, one of the fastest options available, takes at least two and a half years to complete. Taking into account administrative delays, grading, course availability, dissertation or capstone project revision, and other factors, you should generally plan to spend about three years on an online Ed.D. degree if you pursue it full-time.
Part-time study is more common. Ed.D. programs are designed with working professionals in mind, and it is very difficult to continue to work full-time while pursuing a doctorate full-time. Some people have done it, and programs identified as “Accelerated” (see below) are often designed with this purpose in mind, but for part-time study a four- or five-year timetable is more realistic. That said, it’s important for even part-time students to stay proactive; according to a 2007 article from The New York Times, an average Ph.D. student in education takes 13 years to complete their doctorate. That’s not because the degree is designed for 13 years of part-time study; it’s because students get stuck, typically at the dissertation phase. If you can avoid this fate by staying in touch with faculty, minding the timetable, and staying proactive, completing a part-time online Ed.D. in four or five years should be manageable.
Types of Online Ed.D. Programs
From time to time, you will see an online Ed.D. program described as “accelerated” or “executive.” These terms refer to characteristics like program length and type of student, so it’s useful to know what they mean.
Online Accelerated Ed.D. Programs
An accelerated online Ed.D. is usually a program that’s structured to be completed in three years or less. For example, Lamar University’s online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, which can be completed in eight semesters (i.e., two and a half years), is advertised as an accelerated program.
In other words, an accelerated Ed.D. is simply an Ed.D. that advertises primarily as a full-time program. The only meaningful difference between an accelerated online Ed.D. and an ordinary full-time online Ed.D. is that the accelerated program isn’t really advertising for part-time students, so the odds of multiple core classes being offered at overlapping times, or not being offered at all for a while, are much lower than they might otherwise be.
If an online program advertises itself as “accelerated” in a way that would let you complete it in less than two years, that’s usually an indication that the program is unaccredited.
Online Executive Ed.D. Programs
Until recently, it was very hard for working professional to earn a graduate degree while working a full-time schedule. Evening and weekend courses were relatively rare, and senior professionals faced the challenge of either sacrificing several years of income to earn advanced degrees, or potentially losing future jobs or promotions to professionals who had earned those advanced degrees. In the 1980s, colleges and universities responded to this challenge by creating part-time executive degree programs that could be completed entirely on evenings and weekends. Contrary to the name, these programs were seldom limited to executives; full-time homemakers, for example, also benefited from the less traditional schedule.
In time, executive programs became so popular and successful that nearly all graduate programs are what we used to call executive degrees. Colleges and universities have done a better job of accommodating working adults who want to go back to college but can’t commit to a full-time day schedule, and the concept of an executive degree now has multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings. If you’re interested in an executive degree program, be sure to contact the college or university to see what they mean by the term “executive,” and how this might be reflected in the program’s structure and admission requirements.
The one assumption you can safely make about every executive Ed.D. program is that it is designed to accommodate students who have important full-time commitments to honor while they complete their degree — but thanks in part to the success of early executive degree programs, this is an assumption that you can now safely make about most graduate degree programs, whether they are specifically identified as executive degree programs or not.
Online Program Delivery Formats
In the early days of distance learning, you could earn credit any number of ways: by mail (correspondence), by videoconferencing, by audio or video cassette, by proctored examination, and so on. Online instruction has essentially replaced all of these technologies.
What Does “100% Online” Mean?
Most regionally accredited Ed.D. programs require some on-campus residency, but a small number don’t. These include Boise State’s online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Northcentral University’s wide range of Ed.D. programs. For purposes of simplicity, these are often referred to as 100% online programs because the classes take place online, but in practice there are no 100% online programs. For example:
- Most Ed.D. programs require students to hold relevant professional experience, which must generally be obtained in person.
- Class assignments sometimes call on students to try something out in a professional setting, not over the Internet.
- It’s not uncommon for proctored examinations, which the student must take under supervision at a faculty-approved site, to be required.
- Although Boise State and NCU do not include an explicit field work, internship, or practicum requirement, most Ed.D. programs do, and these are always conducted face-to-face at a site near the student.
- Dissertation research can seldom be completed entirely online; gathering data usually requires multiple library trips at minimum, and may require students to conduct experimental research onsite somewhere.
Think of “100% online” as a reference to how the classes themselves are conducted, not to the overall learning experience. Even if you never have to visit the campus of the university you’re earning your Ed.D. from, the process is likely to affect every area of your life, online and off.
What Kind of Software Will I Need?
In most cases, an up-to-date web browser and email client will be enough. Universities use a wide range of software packages to host classes (Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle being the three most popular), but students generally log in by creating accounts through a web form as if they’re using Facebook or another social media site.
Can I Take Classes Whenever I Want?
Maybe. Online classes are taught in one of two ways: they’re either synchronous (where a group of students participate in a class online at the same scheduled time, in a chatroom or other real-time environment), or asynchronous (where students can participate whenever they like, within reason). It’s not unusual for programs to offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes, but if you want to study when you want as well as where you want, make sure to pursue an online Ed.D. program courses are taught asynchronously (or at least where the classes are archived, and synchronous “attendance” is not mandatory).
Hybrid Ed.D. Programs
The vast majority of online Ed.D. programs are actually low-residency hybrid programs, where the bulk of the classroom study is conducted online but students are still required to meet up in person a few times over the course of the program to take a few traditional seminars together. Examples of this type of program include Vanderbilt University’s Ed.D. in Leadership and Learning in Organizations, Columbia University’s Ed.D. in Nursing Education, and Florida State’s Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Administration.
Incidentally, most traditional degree programs offered by accredited U.S. universities are technically high-residency hybrid programs, not 100% on-campus programs, as it is now extremely rare to find a school that does not allow students to take at least some of their coursework online.
Online Ed.D. Dissertations vs. Capstones
Ever since Harvard began offering the first American Ed.D. program in 1921 (a program that it has recently discontinued), it has faced an existential problem that other specialized professional degrees, such as the Psy.D. and Doctor of Business Administration, often face: Is the degree intended to be an easier, less prestigious alternative to the Ph.D., or an equally rigorous practice-focused doctorate along the lines of an M.D.?
Central to this question is the role of the dissertation. Traditionally, master’s degrees and Ph.D. programs prepare students to become researchers in their chosen field. For this reason, master’s degrees typically require a relatively short (and usually derivative) research project called a thesis, where Ph.D. programs typically require a book-length research project, called a dissertation, that must constitute an “original contribution to knowledge” within the student’s field. If the dissertation is especially relevant and timely, the student will later turn the dissertation into a publishable volume and submit it to a university press for publication.
While the dissertation is an essential component to the Ph.D., some Ed.D. programs don’t require it. Instead, students may submit a “dissertation of practice,” portfolio, creative project, or other non-dissertation “capstone project” that does not necessarily require the same level of research. These projects are not necessarily intended to be easier than dissertations, but they’re usually intended to be more relevant to the work the student is likely to do in the field, and the requirements surrounding them are more flexible. Because most of the challenge associated with dissertations comes from the difficult and sometimes capricious process of navigating both student goals and the aspirations of the faculty supervisor, the perception that non-dissertation capstone projects are generally easier to complete has some basis in fact.
If you’re choosing a position that involves research, potential college-level instruction, or a lot of competition with people who hold Ph.D. degrees, it’s probably best to make sure to conclude your Ed.D. with a dissertation rather than a capstone project. But if you’re entering an environment where a capstone-project Ed.D. is the norm, or where most of your peers don’t hold doctorates of any kind, you can probably get by without a dissertation.
Field Work and Internships in Online Ed.D. Programs
Conventional wisdom might suggest that the way you handle field work and internships in online Ed.D. programs is by conducting the field work or internship itself online, but that’s not the case. You typically satisfy these requirements face-to-face at a local site, just like you would in a traditional program. The difference is that the local site is typically local to the student, and can be hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from campus.
Field work and internship requirements can vary a great deal from program to program. Some programs, such as Abilene Christian University’s online Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership, don’t require it at all, at least not in a traditional sense (small amounts of field work are often integrated into normal Ed.D.-level courses in the form of specific assignments). When field work or an internship is required it’s usually classified as a course of its own, as is the case with respect to ELPA 6581 (Internship in Educational Leadership) offered within East Tennessee State University’s online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, wherein the student conducts “fieldwork under the direction of a practicing organizational leader” while “[t]he supervising faculty member from the department serves as a liaison between the university and professionals at the placement site.” The internship only lasts a single semester, and it’s important to note that students can opt out of ELPA 6581 (and take on additional coursework instead) with faculty approval.
In rare cases, an Ed.D. program will integrate specific field work requirements into every course. Molloy College’s low-residency Ed.D. in Educational Leadership for Diverse Learning Communities requires at least 5 hours of specialized field work in each course, which works out to 75 hours spread out over the duration of the five- to six-year program.
How to Choose an Online Ed.D. Program
With so many options to choose from, it can be hard to decide just which Ed.D. program is the best fit for you. Here are a few factors that might help you narrow down your choices.
Every program in our database is offered by a regionally accredited college or university. This means there aren’t any diploma mills among them, and that they meet certain measurable baselines that are associated with high-quality institutions. If all you want is a legitimate Ed.D., and you’re not particular about where you get it, you can stop reading here.
But if you’re looking for prestige, things get trickier. I could refer you to school rankings, such as the one released annually by U.S. News and World Report, but they fluctuate wildly from year to year (making them a poor indicator of how prestigious your future alma mater is likely to be when you graduate) and have long been criticized as arbitrary, marketing-driven, hastily researched, and largely oblivious to actual program quality. A better guarantee of a program’s quality is the presence of CAEP accreditation (see below), but high quality does not guarantee high prestige, and online programs are (for reasons not directly related to quality) less likely to obtain CAEP accreditation than on-campus programs.
That said, there are certainly practical benefits to avoiding the least prestigious online programs. Generally speaking, an online Ed.D. is more likely to be sniffed at if it:
- Was awarded by a for-profit school, rather than a private nonprofit or public institution;
- Was awarded by a school that does not have a significant number of on-campus students;
- Was awarded by a school that’s less than 20 years old; and/or
- Does not involve a dissertation.
For-profit schools are especially controversial at the moment, and are likely to remain so for a long time, so it’s probably best to avoid them if you’re concerned about institutional prestige.
Program Focus and Career Goals
Although it’s tempting to think of an online Ed.D. as a degree in education with specialization tracks, the truth is that the major matters a great deal. Sign up for Drexel University’s Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Management and you’ll come out of the program with a solid background in management philosophy, educational technology, and research design. Sign up for Texas A&M University’s Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, which is also marketed to educational administrators, and you get courses that are centered much more closely on the nuts and bolts of supervision and assessment.
But when you choose a program based on a career track, try to sneak as many of your own academic interests into the major as you can. If you’re interested in working as an educational administrator but much more interested in studying educational psychology, for example, don’t just get an Ed.D. in either field; try to cover both, like choosing the school psychology specialization within the College of William and Mary’s online Ed.D. in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership or the organizational psychology track within Aspen University’s Ed.D. in Leadership and Learning. Whenever possible, choose a program that honors both your academic interests and your career track.
It’s pretty standard for online degree programs to outsource faculty to help with the student load, and a certain amount of that is to be expected, but at the doctoral level you need to be able to access the same core department faculty as on-campus students. This becomes especially important at the dissertation phase, which is far too late to back out – so save yourself some trouble now by checking with the school to make sure any professors you’re especially interested in working with on your future research actually supervise online students’ dissertations.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that online programs cost less than on-campus programs, since students don’t need to rely on physical facilities or the same range of student services. Conventional wisdom, in this case, is wrong. Online Ed.D. programs typically cost about as much as on-campus programs, with total program expenses running anywhere from $6,000 to $200,000.
If money is no object to you, or you’re confident that your career track will pay back any student loans you take out, this isn’t necessarily bad news. But if you’re working with limited funds, you’re going to need to balance the cost of the program with the benefits you expect to receive from it. You’ll also need to explore how to pay for the program in the near term, and how to minimize your long-term debt.
Public Universities: The Most Affordable Option?
All of the least expensive regionally accredited online Ed.D. programs are offered by traditional public universities, and some of these programs are inexpensive enough that taking out student loans may not even be necessary. Boise State’s online Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, which requires no on-campus residency of any kind, costs less than $7,000 no matter where you live in the United States. This is in part because Boise State considers all online U.S. students eligible for in-state tuition.
But most other public universities charge out-of-state students significantly more than they charge in-state students, and in some cases out-of-state tuition can approach or even exceed the cost of private tuition. It’s important to make sure when calculating the cost of a public university program that you have determined whether or not you qualify for in-state tuition and, if not, whether there may be private options in the same price range that are worth considering.
Student Loans: The Cost of Doing Business?
If you can’t afford to pay tuition out of your own pocket, you’ll probably need to get a student loan. Student loans have increasingly become a standard, unavoidable part of higher education for those who are not independently wealthy and don’t qualify for (or still can’t afford) in-state tuition.
The good news is that student loan repayment plans are typically fairly generous, with income-based and pay-as-you-earn arrangements allowing for long-term repayment of loans. People who work in the education sector may also qualify for full or partial student loan forgiveness, and in light of what is increasingly being called the “bubble” of unrecoverable student loan debt Congress has been working on student loan reform packages for years that could change the landscape to make student loans harder to get, easier to repay, or both.
Alternative Funding Sources
Beyond paying tuition outright or getting a student loan, there are other ways to partially cover Ed.D. program costs.
Scholarships and Grants
While scholarships and grants are not as big of a deal at the Ed.D. level as they are for undergraduates, and less commonly available for online students than they are for on-campus students, some options are still available.
As a general rule, graduate assistantships – which make doctoral programs a financial option for many on-campus students who would not otherwise be able to pursue them – are not available for online students. It’s a good idea to check with your specific institution to make sure, though, as case-by-case arrangements can sometimes be made.
Before you look for an Ed.D. program, there are still a few more things to consider.
Online Ed.D. Accreditation
Every college and university in our database holds regional accreditation, the gold standard form of general, institutional U.S. accreditation. This is true whether they offer online programs or not.
If you look around for Ed.D. programs on your own, you may run across some online Ed.D. programs that aren’t in our database that lack regional accreditation, but hold accreditation from a national accreditor called the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). DEAC, founded in 1926 as the National Home Study Council and later known as the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), is a legitimate, USDE-recognized accrediting body originally created to assess legitimate correspondence schools that could not obtain regional accreditation. But DEAC accreditation has never been as widely recognized as regional accreditation, and regional accreditors are now friendlier towards distance learning institutions, so we can think of no good reason to pursue a DEAC-accredited Ed.D. program that lacks regional accreditation. (They aren’t even cheaper than regionally accredited programs.) That’s why we haven’t included these programs in our database, and that’s why you shouldn’t include these programs in your search. If you’re pursuing a program located in the United States, accept no substitute for regional accreditation.
If you’re interested in pursuing a program located outside of the United States, that’s a more complicated topic. Hundreds of legitimate schools offer online Ed.D. programs in the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa that are available to U.S. students, with new schools in the emerging world entering the market on a regular basis. Since there is no international accrediting body that can separate the good schools from the diploma mills on a global scale, and laws and accreditation standards vary from country to country, a good rule of thumb is to avoid any privately-run institution of higher learning located outside of the United States unless you are directly familiar with it and have independent means of vouching for its legitimacy. As a general rule, it’s best to stick to U.S. schools for your Ed.D. unless you have specific knowledge of and experience with another country’s system of higher education, or plan to work overseas in a country whose schools make online Ed.D. programs available to U.S. students.
If you want to go a step further than regional accreditation, consider limiting your search to online Ed.D. programs directly accredited by, or offered by departments that are accredited by, the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). (These programs also hold regional accreditation.) While CAEP’s accrediting process isn’t especially friendly towards online programs, a small number of them have made the cut.
Is an Online Ed.D. Right for You?
We’ve offered a lot of advice here, but in the end the only person whose opinion really matters in this situation is yours. Here are a few last questions you should ask yourself before considering an online program.
How Well Do You Work on Your Own?
Be brutally honest: how much management do you need? If you’re assigned a project, do you benefit from frequent reminders? Can you work from home? Do you need the peer support system of a workplace to get things done? Online programs are for self-starters. If managing your own time doesn’t come naturally to you, and it’s not really a skill you want to develop the hard way, an on-campus program may be a better fit.
How Important is Campus Life to You?
Do you want to make new friends over the course of your Ed.D. program? While it’s not impossible that you’ll make some long-distance friendships while you’re doing an online Ed.D., there’s something to be said for building local connections and becoming part of a campus community. Online programs can’t offer that. That said, if you’re an introvert, or already have an active social life, or don’t enjoy campus socializing, an online Ed.D. makes it more possible to avoid the social element.
Can You Balance an Online Ed.D. With Your Career?
The best thing about an online Ed.D. program is that you can often study on your own schedule, but you still have to put the time in. If you wouldn’t consider doing an on-campus Ed.D. because of the overall time investment, an online Ed.D. is unlikely to prove any more manageable.