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Best Online Master’s Degrees in: Special Education

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Editor's Picks: Online Schools for Special Education

Career Support

The University of Southern California (USC) offers a Master of Arts in Teaching, a Master of Arts in Teaching with Teaching Credential, and a Master of Education in Advanced Instruction, all of which allow students to earn an Education Specialist Credential in Mild/Moderate Disabilities. USC wins this category because its Career Services team assists students with everything from resume and cover letter reviews to placement assistance after graduation. Students will also have access to networking events, job listings, web-based seminars, and other career-related advice.

Technology Support

Bowling Green State University (BGSU) wins this category for providing the best technology support services. Students can contact the Technology Support Center (TSC) by phone or online chat. Support is available seven days a week at designated hours. Technology guides are also available for students to solve tech-related issues on their own.

Student Engagement

The University of Southern California (USC) wins the award for student engagement. USC's Rossier School of Education uses 2SC, an advanced web-based technology, to enhance its online programs. Using 2SC, students can engage with their peers through social networking platforms and face-to-face interactive technology. A mobile app allows students to check discussion boards, view lectures, and stay connected to the Trojan community from their iPhone, iPad, or Android phone.

Library and Research Support

The University of Southern California (USC) wins this category because it provides the most comprehensive library and research services to students. USC librarians are available by email and phone, and students can chat online with librarians 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Aside from reference librarians, subject specialists are also available to assist students with research-related issues. Students can access databases and online journals, and USC's Interlibrary Loan (ILLIAD) service allows students to obtain articles via email and books by mail.

Learning Support

University of Southern California (USC) students can earn an Education Specialist Credential in Mild/Moderate Disabilities while they pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching, a Master of Arts in Teaching with Teaching Credential, or a Master of Education in Advanced Instruction degree. USC's Rossier School of Education wins this award for providing the most comprehensive learning support services to online students, who receive extensive guidance from academic advisors. These mentors assist in course selection and offer live tutoring in key subject areas. In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranks Rossier Online No. 2 in the nation among online graduate education programs in this category.

Faculty Credentials

The University of Nebraska wins the award for faculty credentials. All faculty members have at least two years of experience in online instruction. The University of Nebraska requires professors to receive formal training in online instruction to teach, and the school finances this training. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, the University of Nebraska ranks No. 4 in this category, beating out many other online graduate education programs.

Faculty Accessibility

Fort Hays State University's (FHSU) Master of Science in Special Education wins the award for faculty accessibility. According to U.S. News & World Report, students can expect instructors to respond to questions and queries within 48 hours, and instructors are also available to meet with students during office hours, which average five hours per week. FHSU's online graduate programs are ranked at No. 22 in this area by U.S. News.

Explore a Master's Degree in Special Education

Online master's degree programs in special education are designed to prepare graduates for careers as teachers, curriculum developers, or school administrators, with a focus on serving students with special needs. Special education programs will focus on the need to assess and adapt to the individual differences and learning needs of students with genetic conditions, developmental disorders, visual impairment, hearing difficulties, or other disabilities. Most career opportunities will be with public and private schools, but some opportunities may also be available with curriculum development and child care companies.

Online curricula provide students with maximum flexibility to adjust their course load to fit with the demands of their work and family lives. The average time needed to complete this type of degree can range from one to three years, depending on the number of courses a student takes each term. In addition, the number of transfer credits a student brings in and whether or not they remain continuously enrolled can also affect how long it takes to finish the program.

Class Curriculum

Students enrolled in a special education program can expect a combination of lecture, seminar, research, and field work courses. Core curriculum topics will likely include inclusive classrooms, special education processes, emotional and behavioral support, and characteristic and methods for special education Depending on the specific program, students may also choose an area of concentration, such as language and cultural issues, autism, or technology in special education. Some examples of courses that may be required for this type of degree are:

  • Literary and Content Skill Development. This course focuses on helping students with disabilities, or those at-risk for disabilities, to develop literacy skills. Research, theoretical concepts, identification approaches, and instructional strategies will all be discussed.
  • Design and Assessment. Students will prepare for work as course developers and action researchers. Special focus is given to effective lesson planning, materials development, tack design, assessment, evaluation, and the use of technology.
  • Multi-Media Instructional Design. This course will explore learning theory and its application to multimedia formats such as video, sounds, animation, and graphics. Students will examine virtual classrooms and assess software, as well as prototype their own as part of a group project.

Course assignments for this type of program are likely to include readings, research projects and papers, presentations, situational exercises, and field work. Students should also be prepared to work in groups to complete curriculum design assignments and active research. Depending on the specific program, a field-based research project, and subsequent master's thesis, may be required for graduation. This demonstrates the students' ability to practically apply the theoretical principles and concepts they have learned throughout the program.

Building a Career

Special education graduates are prepared with the necessary analytical, instructional, and research skills to pursue careers as teachers, school administrators, or curriculum developers. Most of these positions will be directly with schools, both public and private. However, some job opportunities may be found with private curriculum development and child care companies. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for special education teachers is expected to increase by 17% from 2010 to 2020. This is faster than the average of 14% growth expected for all jobs. The median annual wage for special education teachers was $53,220, according to the BLS. Those who taught at the high school level earned a median annual wage of $54,810. Please note, however, that these are only estimates. Actual starting salaries and job opportunities are influenced by location, level of experience, education, industry, and the general job market.