Students who wish to earn a degree in speech-language therapy online may choose undergraduate or graduate programs, but a graduate degree is required for practice as a speech-language pathologist. There are no totally online degree programs in speech-language pathology, but students may be able to take some courses through distance education. However, degree programs at both the master's and bachelor's degree levels have extensive clinical requirements that must be completed on-site.
Students in speech-language pathology programs take courses such as neurobiology and anatomy that help them understand the physical components of speech. They study language development and speech sounds. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) must be licensed by the states where they work. Most states require a master's degree, a 1-year clinical fellowship and a passing score on the Praxis exam. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association also requires these qualifications for professional certification.
States may use different regulations for SLPs working in private practice than for those in schools. Many states require school-based SLPs to have teaching-related certification. Continuing education is required for both private and school-based SLPs. Most students who earn undergraduate degrees move on to master's programs, but in some states, they can work as speech-language pathology assistants with just a bachelor's degree. Programs targeted to this career may be available online.
Bachelor of Science in Speech-Language Pathology
An online bachelor's degree in speech-language pathology introduces basic language development, phonology, basic audiology and instrumentation. Most programs combine online and location-based experience. Even at the pre-professional level, most curricula require students to participate in a clinical practicum. The practicum will be done under the supervision of a licensed SLP, and many online universities allow work-based experience to count toward practicum requirements.
An online program in speech requires a computer with high speed Internet access. Students need special fonts for the International Phonetic Alphabet, and they must have media player software. Some programs offer compressed video or 2-way video chat so students can listen to lectures and ask questions of their professors. Other programs use message boards or chat rooms for students' discussions and questions.
Bachelor-Level Speech-Language Pathology Courses
Bachelor-level coursework helps students understand how language develops and how hearing affects that development. Courses provide a basic understanding of phonology. Baccalaureate students take a variety of classes so that they can choose a focus area for graduate work, such as voice or phonology.
While audiology (health care of hearing loss) is a separate field, SLPs frequently conduct audiology screenings. To diagnose a speech or language disorder, an SLP must know whether the patient can hear spoken language. Introductory audiology classes cover the anatomy and physiology of the ear. Students learn how to measure sound waves, how to work an audiometer and how to read and interpret audiograms. With these skills, the SLP determines whether to refer a client to an audiologist. Many online classes in audiology use interactive activities on Flash sites where students can run mock audiology tests or view the inner ear.
Intro to Phonology
Phonology, the sound system of a language, is vital to written and spoken communication. Students learn to categorize how sounds are produced. They learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in order to transcribe client errors and analyze them for treatment. Online courses frequently have .wav clips that students transcribe via IPA. Students can download a special set of fonts with the characters necessary for IPA transcription.
An understanding of speech and language norms is necessary to evaluate whether a child is developing normally or needs services. Online coursework often involves media clips showing normal and abnormal development. After viewing the clips, students write observations and treatment recommendations as practice before treating clients in a supervised practicum.
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Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology
Most online programs are for full-time students, but some part-time programs support SLPAs who want to earn their master's degrees. Master's programs require a student to already have a bachelor's degree or post-baccalaureate credential in speech pathology or clinical communication disorders. Most online programs offer thesis or non-thesis options for graduation.
Program Information and Requirements
All online programs require hands-on clinical work under the supervision of an experienced, licensed SLP. Many graduate programs help online students find speech therapists near their homes with whom to complete this work-study. In other programs, students treat clients in on-campus clinics, perhaps during a summer residency. At some schools, students who can't visit the campus must find a proctor, such as a librarian or school official, to supervise exams. Friends and family can't be proctors, and testing can't happen in students' homes.
Online programs require a computer with high speed Internet access. Materials and discussions may be presented via online message boards, multimedia clips and compressed video lectures. Students need media software, such as Windows Media Player, Quicktime or Adobe Flash. Some courses require downloading Praat, a free phonetics analysis software program.
Graduate-Level Speech Courses
All online graduate programs include classes in language development and disorders, speech instrumentation and phonology. Many offer specializations such as clinical voice, which involves the treatment of vocal disorders; fluency, which addresses problems such as stuttering; and cued speech, which uses sign language along with speaking to help children with motor delays gain communication skills.
Voice classes online involve readings on the vocal tract and its disorders. Swallowing problems and suspected vocal fold pathology must be referred to a medical doctor, usually an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), to rule out serious diseases such as cancer. Therefore, graduate students must work in person with experienced SLPs and ENTs to evaluate patients and form treatment plans. Written work is submitted online.
Building on previous coursework in phonology, students learn about the linguistic principles underlying theories of phonological development. Online classes present sound clips from various languages and dialects. Students use the multimedia clips to transcribe and analyze production errors.
Because speech is organized in the brain, individuals who have had strokes or other brain injuries frequently have speech or language disorders. To diagnose and treat these patients, therapists must understand how neuroanatomy affects speech and language production. This class needs a clinical component.
Speech instrumentation focuses on acoustic analysis of speech sounds, unlike audiology, which measures hearing. Students listen to samples online and evaluate them with programs such as Praat, which allows them to measure the frequency of an individual's voice and identify speech sounds through sound wave analysis.
Speech-language pathologist assistants (SLPAs) assist the SLP in assessment and therapy, but they must work under supervision. Not all states allow SLPAs. In states that allow SLPAs to practice, a pre-professional bachelor's degree can allow them to work and prepare them to earn master's degrees later. Programs targeted to the SLPA position may not meet master's degree program prerequisites. ASHA provides information on licensing requirements by state.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for speech-language pathologists is projected to rise at a faster rate than the national average; the expected growth rate is 21% from 2014 to 2024. About 40% of speech-language pathologists worked in schools in 2014, and most others were employed by healthcare institutions.
While it is possible to complete both a bachelor's and master's degree program in speech pathology online, students must complete an in-person, hands-on clinical practicum. After earning a master's degree in the field and completing a fellowship, graduates can seek professional licensure.