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Online Education: Types of Degrees Available

By now, online learning opportunities are almost expected at colleges and universities around the country. For students interested in earning a degree, there are many undergraduate and graduate options available. Explore more on these online degree types and learning methods.

Overview of Online Degree Programs

Online degree programs are available from community colleges, career schools and four-year universities as well as private institutions that don't have a brick-and-mortar campus. Such distance learning options are often designed for working adults or those with obligations that make keeping to a strict on-campus schedule a challenge. Many areas of study are available through online programs, such as business, teacher education, history, English, computer science, accounting and the arts. Some fields, however, can't be offered fully online. In these cases, schools may offer hybrid degree options that combine distance learning and campus-based instruction.

Online Learning & Degree Options

Each program has its own instructional methods, but in general most online classes are carried out in a similar way. Schools use course management software to create a virtual classroom setting that distance learners can typically access around the clock. These sites contain lectures, tests, assignments and other materials that support independent learning. Instructors may use a variety of communication strategies to maintain interaction with and between classmates, including message boards, chat rooms, e-mail and web conferencing. Formal degree programs offered online usually have set due dates for coursework and class discussions.

Associate Degrees

Generally, an associate's degree takes take less time to earn than a bachelor's degree because there are fewer required units. However, the coursework is similar to bachelor's courses, requiring general education, electives and major work. Depending on the program, graduates may be awarded an Associate in Arts, Associate of Science or an Associate of Applied Science. Some two-year degrees prepare students to join the workforce while others are used for preparation for further study at the bachelor's level.

Bachelor's Degrees

Like on-campus programs, online bachelor's-level programs typically lead to a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science. Those who receive the former are in liberal arts and fine arts while those in physical science, life science, math, agriculture, and engineering would receive a Bachelor of Science degree. Some schools also offer Bachelor of Business Administration options. Some students may also attend a specialized school to receive a bachelor's degree.

Master's Degrees

Online graduate programs commonly award a Master of Arts or Master of Science and are available from four-year institutions as well as some private distance education schools. These programs are open to students who already have a bachelor's degree and are seeking advanced knowledge and skills in a particular field. In some cases, applicants to online master's degree programs are required to have work experience relevant to their chosen course of study. The programs usually take around two years to complete and combine core courses with elective options from a pre-approved selection of classes.

Doctorate Degree

Most doctoral degree students pursue education at this level after receiving master's degrees and obtaining a certain amount of professional experience in their field. The curriculum in these programs typically includes a set of required courses and possibly the option to complete some electives; there's also a heavy emphasis on research methods. The focal point of most doctoral programs -- both online and on-campus -- is the dissertation, which is a significant, intensive research undertaking that must be defended before a faculty committee.

These programs usually award a Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Education or Doctor of Business Administration degree and take three to seven years to complete. Keep in mind that doctoral degrees are rarely offered totally online due to the intensive nature of the study and the on-site demands of research. There are traditional and online colleges, however, that now offer hybrid doctorate programs. These allow distance learners to complete certain courses online and then visit campus at various points through the program to take care of in-person requirements.

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