Online Teaching

Is a Master’s Degree in E-Learning Worth It?

Is a Master’s Degree in E-Learning Worth It?
How big a role technology plays in the curriculum in any given program can also help you decide whether a master's degree in e-learning is worth it—especially if your goal is not only to develop materials but also to develop entire learning environments. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 17, 2019

Technology in the classroom is here to stay. Sometimes technology *is* the classroom, and there's an increasing need for education experts who understand—and can help others understand—modern learning technologies and e-learning ecologies. Earning a master's in e-learning can open up a world of opportunity in education and other fields.

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E-learning—defined by the Educause Center for Analysis and Research as “learning that involves a web-based component, enabling collaboration and access to content that extends beyond the classroom“—has become firmly entrenched in the education world. According to the US Department of Education, in 2017 nearly 16 percent of all post-secondary students studied exclusively online; another 18 percent took some, but not all, of their courses online.That’s one-third of all college and graduate students engaged in some form of distance learning.

That number continues to grow every year. And it’s not just post-secondary students; e-learning has also permeated K-12 instruction and corporate trainings. In all settings, at all levels, technology is playing a role in instructional design, curriculum, teaching strategies, and assessment techniques.

E-learning specialists are helping to codify new, technology-driven models of education, but it’s not yet a full-blown discipline. Most Master of Education (MEd) programs touch only briefly on e-learning (often in the context of literacy education). That’s starting to change, though. There are new graduate-level programs that acknowledge the importance of digital technologies in learning design and the need for better programs and platforms for distance learning. These master’s in e-learning degree programs give teachers and educational administrators the tools and knowledge they need to integrate the Internet and technology into instructional design successfully.

Graduates of these programs do things like:

  • Create interactive and engaging e-learning courses
  • Help schools incorporate technology in the classroom
  • Develop new, more effective staffing models for distance education
  • Show educators in private and nonprofit settings how to use learning technologies for professional development

In short: there is a lot you can do with this master’s degree, and future prospects seem likely to expand further as technology improves and e-learning gains wider acceptance.

In this guide to whether a master’s in e-learning is worth it, we’ll cover:

  • What are e-learning master’s programs?
  • Career options for a master of e-learning
  • What to expect from a master’s program in e-learning
  • Curriculum in e-learning master’s programs
  • Best e-learning master’s programs
  • Pros and cons of a master’s in e-learning
  • Alternatives to earning a master’s in e-learning
  • Is this degree really worth it?

What are e-learning master’s programs?

There is no one type of master’s in e-learning program. This is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of online degree programs and traditional Master of Education degrees focused on digital technology in education and creating and leading distance-education programs.

Students in master’s in e-learning programs typically do study some education fundamentals, but concepts are usually presented in the context of tech tools and technology-mediated learning environments. When you graduate from one of these programs, you’ll be qualified to take on a range of mid- and senior-level roles in distance education, instructional technology, instructional design in digital environments, education games, and e-learning.

Career options for a master of e-learning

With a master’s in e-learning, you can work in education but you don’t have to. As schools integrate technology into classrooms, there’s definitely a need for professionals who can assist with planning and technology implementation in and out of the classroom. You could be a/an:

  • Media specialist (annual salary: $53,000)
  • Digital course designer (annual salary: $62,000)
  • Faculty support specialist for technology (annual salary: $60,000)
  • Online instructor (annual salary: $58,000)
  • Director of classroom technology (annual salary: $76,000)
  • Director of distance education (annual salary: $99,000)

E-learning specialists also work in business—usually in human resource development. They may be in charge of employee training, solving performance problems, or creating and presenting courses. In the business world, you might be a:

  • Corporate trainer (annual salary: $55,000)
  • Professional development consultant (annual salary: $83,000)
  • Director of professional development (annual salary: $77,000)
  • Global training director (annual salary: $97,000)

With a master’s in e-learning, you can also work for the military. There are educational experts in the military who design training materials like manuals, presentations, and entire courses.

And of course, you can work for a curriculum or instructional design company in just about any role focused on e-learning development. Roles at these companies include:

  • Curriculum developer
  • Instructional designer
  • Trainer
  • Director of training
  • Multimedia scriptwriter
  • Instructional technology specialist

Some e-learning specialists are multi-talented, with a background that includes both education and programming. While none of the above roles requires heavy programming skills, they might prove to be an asset when you’re job hunting. If you have the opportunity to take electives related to desktop development or web development, do it.

What to expect from a master’s program in e-learning

If you think digital tech is the next big thing in education, then you will love most master’s degree programs in e-learning. These programs teach students to use existing education theories and learning models to develop better distance education and digital teaching tools. At the same time, students learn about new education technologies and how to create and manage distance and e-learning curricula. Students also develop the skills they need to assess the effectiveness of distance learning and in-classroom e-learning programs, and to integrate e-learning tools into organizational and staffing models.

While there aren’t many master’s in e-learning programs, the colleges and universities that do have them usually offer the degree in both online and traditional formats. Online Master of Education programs typically have the same curriculum as on-campus programs, allowing working education professionals who can’t take time off to take classes while still working part-time or full-time.

Curriculum in e-learning master’s programs

Core courses in master’s in e-learning programs are often focused on instructional design and development; education theories, psychology, and learning models; learning styles; multimedia development; and learning assessment. Classes you may take in a master’s in e-learning program include:

  • Foundations of Distance Education & E-learning
  • Teaching and Learning in Online Distance Education
  • Designing High-Impact E-learning Environments
  • Technology in Distance Education & E-learning
  • E-Learning Ecologies
  • Learner Support in Distance Education and Training
  • Costs and Economics of Distance Education & E-learning
  • Library and Intellectual Property Issues in Distance Education & E-learning
  • Critical Issues in E-learning Paradigms
  • Instructional Design and Course Development in Distance Education & E-learning
  • Integrating Technologies Across the Curriculum
  • Training and Learning with Multimedia
  • Management and Leadership in Distance Education & E-learning
  • Online Learning and Development in the Workplace
  • The Business of Distance Education & E-learning
  • Technology & Educational Reform

Some online Master in Education in E-Learning programs require students to create an electronic portfolio. This portfolio can include many things, from a functional personal learning environment to prototype online courses to a learner-support model for a school or training program or business plans for a new distance learning company.

Best e-learning master’s programs

Because this is such a new degree pathway, only a few schools offer it. That means there really are no “best” e-learning master’s programs yet. If you really want to go all-in on e-learning as a discipline, any of the e-learning master’s degree programs below should provide a solid foundation. They are, however, all quite different.

  • Northcentral University offers a 15-month Master of Education with an E-Learning specialization. In this program, students dive deep into a variety of e-learning approaches and practices.
  • Northeastern University offers an 18-month Master’s in eLearning and Instructional Design. The core curriculum in this program includes courses focused on educational technology and models for learning design. Students can customize their degree with 12 credits of electives.
  • University of Colorado – Denver offers a 30-credit Master of Arts in Learning Design and Technology with an emphasis on eLearning Design and Implementation. The program focuses on interactive learning, instructional design, and developing trends in the field.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign offers a 32-credit hour Master of Education in Foundations of eLearning Higher Education. This program is largely elective-driven; it includes only three core courses.
  • University of Maryland – University College offers a 36-credit hour Master of Distance Education and E-Learning. The curriculum focuses on managing distance education and training in a variety of contexts (K-12, higher education, corporate training, nonprofit education, etc.).

Pros and cons of a master’s in e-learning

There’s always a risk when you choose a relatively new degree that people won’t understand or respect it. Probably the biggest con of pursuing a Master of Education in E-Learning (or Online Learning) is that there’s no specific role related to this degree. It will be up to you to decide what you want to do with it. This degree can help you transition to a lot of exciting and lucrative careers, but you may have to hustle to get a foot in the door. At a job interview, you might know more about distance learning and e-learning technology than the next interviewee. Even so, their Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction or Learning Design and Technology may get them the job.

The best jobs in education tech and distance education design won’t necessarily require you to have this degree. Not yet, anyway. By pursuing this degree, you’re making a bet that as e-learning continues to grow, more employers will seek experts with the type of training this degree provides.

Alternatives to earning a master’s in e-learning

Because the MEd in E-Learning is such a new degree, you won’t find it at many colleges and universities. What you will find are graduate certificate programs in e-learning design. These in-depth specialty curricula train teachers to design and deliver virtual classes for K-12 classrooms, higher education, corporate training programs, and healthcare education initiatives.

Certificate programs tend to be highly focused. All of your coursework will be related to e-learning. You’ll take classes like:

  • Theory and Practice for Web-Based Instruction
  • Distance Learning and Telecommunications
  • Learning Environments Design
  • Designing E-Learning Environments
  • E-Learning Assessment and Evaluation

What you won’t study in most graduate certificate programs are core educational concepts.

You can find graduate certificate programs in e-learning design (and similar) at:

Is a master’s degree in e-learning worth it?

That depends on your career goals, and whether any of the programs above fits them. Master’s in e-learning programs vary greatly. Some are focused on e-learning in the classroom, while others prioritize coursework related to distance education. How big a role technology plays in the curriculum in any given program can also help you decide whether this degree is worth pursuing—especially if your goal is not only to develop materials but also to develop entire learning environments.

The fact is that you can probably become an online instructional designer without a Master of Education in E-learning. If e-learning is your passion, then you’ll get a lot out of this degree, personally and professionally. But if e-learning is just one of the areas of education that you’re interested in, do some research before you opt for this specialization. Other MEd concentrations emphasize the growing role that technology is playing in education, but may give you more flexibility in the future if you decide you want to transition away from e-learning and into another area of education.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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