Should You Get an Online Master’s Degree in Teaching?

Should You Get an Online Master’s Degree in Teaching?
If you want to spend your career in the classroom and you don't already have a master's degree, earning one should be on your shortlist. But what if you can't take a year or three off to pursue that degree in an on-campus program? Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 9, 2019

The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) is the master's degree for teachers who want to make more money and advance in the classroom, but earning one can be tough while you're also working. The good news is that more and more universities are creating flexible online master's in teaching programs. There are compelling reasons to check them out.

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A master’s in teaching degree (formally, a Master of Arts in Teaching, or MAT for short) can do one of two things for you. For one, it can qualify you to earn a teaching license so you can lead a K-12 classroom. For another, it can help you earn additional certifications to advance as a teacher, transition into specialty teaching roles, or make a move to higher education.

If you want to spend your career in the classroom and you don’t already have a master’s degree, earning one should be on your shortlist. But what if you can’t take a year or three off to pursue that degree in an on-campus program?

You’re not alone: plenty of working and aspiring teachers can’t justify playing hooky to get a graduate degree. That’s why many universities have launched online master’s in teaching programs specifically designed for students who need to keep working.

Once upon a time, online degrees had the reputation of being less rigorous and less respected than traditional degree programs. That’s no longer the case. Thanks to the entry of top-quality universities into online education, along with increased bandwidth capacities that facilitate streaming video and other interactive apps, today’s online master’s in teaching programs and online courses are every bit as challenging and rewarding as those offered on campus.

Should you get your MAT online? The answer to that question depends on many factors. The best thing you can do is find out as much as you can about how online programs stack up. In this article about whether to get your master’s in teaching online, we’ll cover:

  • MAT versus MEd
  • Reasons to get an online master’s in teaching
  • Jobs you can get with a master’s in teaching
  • What to expect from an online master’s in teaching program
  • The average cost of earning your master’s in teaching online
  • Can I get financial aid for an online master’s program?
  • Best online master’s in teaching programs
  • What the best online master’s in teaching programs have in common
  • Pros and cons of getting a master’s in teaching online

MAT versus MEd

A lot of guides to master’s degrees for educators lump MAT and MEd programs together. Both degrees are offered online, and both take about two years to complete. However, the students in these two types of programs typically have very different goals, and the program curricula reflect that.

An MEd student may be a teacher right now, but they’re probably pursuing their master’s because they’re looking to transition to a role in administration, policy, or curriculum design. Master of Arts in Teaching students, on the other hand, usually plan to spend their entire careers working with students in a classroom setting.

The curricula of these programs—much of which focus on teaching and learning—overlap somewhat. However, MAT coursework tends to concentrate on how to grow as a teacher, while MEd coursework is focused on educational leadership, administration, and curriculum design.

MAT and MEd programs differ in other ways, too. MAT programs are much more likely to accept applicants who don’t have any prior teaching experience. That said, different universities use different naming conventions for their online teaching degrees. One school’s MAT may be nearly identical to another’s Master of Science in Education, Master of Science in Teaching, or Master’s in Education. Don’t make assumptions about degrees at particular colleges or universities based on names alone. Always look carefully at what each program offers before applying.


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Reasons to get an online master’s in teaching

The primary reason students enroll in online master’s in teaching programs instead of studying on-campus is convenience. Many, though not all, online master’s degree programs either allow students to study at their own pace (asynchronous format) or dial into virtual classes with other students in the evening or on weekends (synchronous format). As a result, students can keep working while enrolled in an online MAT program, or can continue meeting other obligations such as caring for children or elderly relatives.

Flexibility isn’t the only reason students choose to get master’s in teaching degrees online. Some accelerated online programs allow students to earn the same degree as on-campus students in less time, and motivated students may be able to complete self-paced online programs just by working through the required courses more quickly. Online programs are also more likely to have frequent start dates, so students don’t have to wait for the next academic year to begin studying. Location may also be a factor. Students who apply to traditional MAT programs are limited to colleges and universities in commuting range, while online learners can choose a school even if it’s thousands of miles away.

Jobs you can get with a master’s in teaching

Master’s in teaching degrees are for teachers who want to work or continue working directly with students. Some people in online MAT programs already have hands-on experience in the classroom, but many others don’t and are pursuing this master’s degree as a way to get into a teaching position. Getting an online master’s in teaching degree will prepare you to become an elementary, middle, or high school teacher or to transition to a specialty role in teaching (e.g., special education teacher, math teacher, etc.).

What to expect from an online master’s in teaching program

Online master’s in teaching programs are typically similar (if not identical) to traditional programs in terms of commitment, curriculum, and instruction. Most require students to complete 30 to 42 credits over one to two years of full-time study, although part-time programs and programs that include a lot of concentration coursework can take longer. Some programs require students to have a bachelor’s degree in education. Others don’t.

Where you’ll see more variability is in the curriculum. At some colleges and universities, the online master’s in teaching program is virtually identical (not just equivalent) to the on-campus program, while at others, they’re very different. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that an online MAT program is less challenging or less intense than its on-campus counterpart. Some students actually discover that the opposite is true. Distance learners may be required to do more independent research or may have to work harder to show they understand the material. Some online classes are smaller than on-campus classes, meaning you will be called on more frequently in live sessions.

When you get a master’s in teaching online, you’ll typically communicate with your professors and complete assignments via email, cloud storage services, and your school’s online learning portal. Depending on which program you choose, however, you may have to spend some time on campus. Sometimes schools require students to complete internships at specific local institutions, to complete a one- or two-week on-campus residency, or to take a class that’s required but isn’t offered online. An online MAT program may also require students to visit campus to sit for final exams, though some allow students to take exams online or to sit for exams at a nearby accredited university.

Most online master’s in teaching programs are still credit-based, but if you’re already working as a teacher, some programs offer credit for work experience. These competency-based programs accept professional experience as proof of proficiency in particular subject areas or allow working teachers to test out of some classes.

Keep in mind that all the above points are generalizations. Every online master’s in teaching program will have its own features, format, and requirements. Be sure you understand what kind of commitment you’re making when you enroll in a master’s degree program focused on teacher education.

The average cost of earning your master’s in teaching online

Online MAT programs sometimes cost less than on-campus programs, but not always. That’s because some schools don’t make online students pay special fees that traditional students do have to pay as part of tuition. Many colleges and universities still have in-state and out-of-state tuition rates for distance learners, and some don’t differentiate between on-campus and online credits when calculating tuition. In general, you can expect to pay between $250 to $470 per credit and $8,000 and $20,000 in total tuition. You can certainly pay more if you want: the online MAT at University of Southern California, for example, costs $1,928 per credit, or about $54,000 in total tuition.

Some of the most affordable online Master of Arts in Teaching programs can be found at:

Can I get financial aid for an online master’s program?

You can. As long as an online master’s in teaching program is accredited, students can submit a FAFSA form for financial aid, take out student loans, and apply for private grants and scholarships the same way they would when enrolling in a traditional program. Graduates of online MAT programs are also eligible for the same loan forgiveness programs as teachers who graduate from traditional master’s degree programs, as long as they put in the requisite number of hours of public service. You can get more information about the kind of financial aid available for distance learners by contacting the financial aid offices of the schools you’re interested in attending.

Best online master’s in teaching programs

The best online master’s in teaching programs won’t necessarily be those at colleges and universities with famous names. That’s because ‘best’ is highly subjective when it comes to degree programs. The best online MAT for you will be one with a curriculum that aligns with your professional goals, a commitment you can handle, and a price tag you can afford. Check out the programs at the following schools with those considerations in mind:

What the best online master’s in teaching programs have in common

Online master’s degree programs can be every bit as rigorous if not more so than traditional on-campus programs, which means you don’t need to compromise when looking for a program that will be a good fit. The best online master’s in teaching programs will include internship or fieldwork credits (usually about six). The best programs will help you find a placement in your area. You shouldn’t have any issues communicating with your professors or your fellow students in a well-designed online MAT program, either. In fact, you should get the same amount of attention from your professors as you would as an on-campus student.

The best online master’s degree programs for teachers also allow students to choose concentrations or tracks relevant to their professional goals. Many concentrations prepare teachers to teach at a specific grade level (e.g., elementary education) or to teach a specific topic or student group (e.g., math or special education). Some concentrations available in top-rated Master of Arts in Teaching programs are:

Finally, the best online MAT programs have up-to-date technology. Look for programs with intuitive learning management systems, interactive course content, mobile access, and real-time tech support. Many students don’t think to look into a school’s tech before enrolling in an online master’s degree program, but it’s actually an important consideration. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to take tests, submit papers, or participate in class discussions using a system that won’t stop glitching.

Pros and cons of getting a master’s in teaching online

If you love to teach, there are very few downsides to getting a master’s in teaching from an accredited online program. Teachers with a master’s degree earn over $7,000 more on average than those who only have a bachelor’s degree, and may have access to more opportunities in addition to higher-paying ones. Many states require teachers to earn a master’s to renew their teaching licenses, meaning you’ll need a master’s of some sort to make a career in the classroom. The MAT is an excellent choice.

When you’re looking at whether you should get your master’s in teaching online, you’ll encounter both pros and cons. The former should add up a lot faster than the latter. Online MAT programs are typically designed to accommodate both working teachers and students who don’t have any previous teaching experience or even prerequisite education courses and student teaching hours. Most colleges and universities don’t distinguish between their online degrees and on-campus degrees when awarding diplomas, which means employers will only know where you studied, not how. If time is of the essence, you can complete some online master’s in teaching programs in just over a year if you’re willing to put in the work (and get your updated teaching license that much faster).

There are really only two cons you need to consider. The first is that you may not get to participate in your school’s graduation ceremony—not because it doesn’t allow it, but because it’s inconvenient. The second is that successfully completing an online graduate degree program requires self-discipline. You won’t have in-person face time with your professors (although many programs feature online office hours via teleconferencing), and that can make it a lot easier to ignore deadlines. Some people need that IRL connection with their instructors and fellow students to stay motivated until graduation.

Distance learning isn’t an optimal fit for every teacher, but if you want to gain the skills and knowledge to become a better teacher without taking a break from the classroom, getting a master’s in teaching online makes a lot of sense.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

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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