Online Degree in Special Education

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Shattering
Learning Barriers

Education can be a fulfilling yet demanding profession, especially for individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of students with learning disabilities. Special education is not confined to the walls of public and private classrooms. People with specialized training have opportunities to develop public policy, conduct research and act as educational consultants. Read on to learn more about online special education degrees, including learning outcomes, licensing requirements and avenues for employment.

Special Education Teachers: Career Milestone Route

Special education teachers work with students who have a variety of learning disabilities that span the spectrum from mild to severe, be they physical, mental, emotional or behavioral. While individuals working in special education can pursue opportunities in public and private schools, nonprofit below is just one potential path for someone with a special education teaching credential.

Bachelor’s Degree

Completes education degree and certification to work with K-12 students with mild to moderate disabilities

Teaching Experience

Begins teaching career in a public elementary school working with children who have autism

Graduate Degree

After three years in the classroom, completes Master of Education with an emphasis in special education

Additional Certification

Completes requirements to become a Certified Autism Specialist

Promotion to Instructional Coordinator

Organizes services for autistic students at a private school

Career
Advancement

After five years, moves into specialist role at public school district, implementing programs for students with autism

Special Education Degree Programs: Studying Online

University-based teacher preparation programs combine academic instruction with clinical experiences that align with state-based standards and guidelines. More and more programs are being offered online, providing students with flexible options for completing a degree. Below is an overview of the learning experience for online special education degree seekers.

Local Student-Teaching Practicums

Just like their campus-based counterparts, online teaching programs require students to complete an in-person student teaching practicum. These practicums may be completed in another state and are monitored virtually by supervisors in the program.

Immersive Digital Learning

Online learning is delivered via a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard. Most special education teaching programs are delivered in an asynchronous (self-paced) format that offers students freedom regarding when and where they complete their assignments. Through the LMS, students can access their reading materials, submit assignments and communicate with instructors and peers.

Online Communication

Students use video, online chat, discussion boards, email, bulletin boards and phone calls to communicate and interact with both their students and instructors.

Technology Requirements

Technology requirements vary from program to program. However, all programs require students to have a reliable computer with a high-speed Internet connection. Updated Web browsers are required to work within learning management systems. Headphones, microphones and a webcam are also typically recommended for student communication and online test proctoring.

Online Degree Programs in Special Education

Online special education degrees are offered from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level, with plenty of variations sprinkled in to allow students to meet their individual professional goals.

  • Bachelor’s
    (4 to 5 Years)
  • Master’s
    (2 to 3 Years)
  • Doctorate
    (4 to 6+ Years)
  • Education Specialist
    (2 to 3 Years)
  • Graduate Certificates
    (1 Year or Less)

The Bachelor of Science in special education prepares future educators to work with students who have a variety of learning, emotional, behavioral and cognitive disabilities. Typically, these programs require between 120 and 128 credit hours to complete and are arranged around a sequence of study that leads to special education teacher certification in the student’s state of residence. Curriculum is specialized, preparing students to work with learners with mild to moderate or severe to profound disabilities. In turn, coursework provides students with a thorough understanding of the conceptual foundations of child and youth development, assessment and diagnosis, and instructional techniques. Although some programs can be completed in four years, others require a fifth year of study that culminates in a supervised clinical practicum in a preschool, elementary school, middle school, or high school.

The master’s degree in special education is unique because it serves experienced educators licensed in special education as well as students new to education who wish to pursue a career in teaching. To that end, there are two divergent paths of study at the graduate level: Master of Education (MEd) and Master of Arts (MA)/Master of Science (MS).

  • MEd: The Master of Education is a professionally oriented program of study, with coursework that focuses not on research but on developing the core skills and knowledge of special education teachers.
  • MA/MS: A Master of Arts or Master of Science is more heavily concentrated around research and typically requires students to complete a thesis as part of their coursework.

The MEd and MA are traditionally further divided into three types:

  • Master’s degree: Some programs are stand-alone, allowing students to complete a special education program of study without a practicum/field experience requirement.
  • Master’s degree with education licensure: These programs, which include a student-teaching experience, are designed for educators who wish to complete a master’s degree and requirements for their initial special education teaching license.
  • Master’s degree with advanced instruction: These programs, which also include a student-teaching component, are for experienced educators seeking advanced instruction in working with special needs students.

Most master’s programs are between 30 and 36 credit hours and can take anywhere from two to three years of full-time study to complete. For more information, see our guide to the online master’s in special education.

Doctoral programs are the highest academic degrees available in education. They are for individuals who wish to perform original research and prepare for either research or educational leadership positions in special education. Like the master’s degree, two doctoral tracks are available: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Education (EdD). Both programs require a dissertation and generally require between 60 and 72 credits.

  • Doctor of Education: The Doctor of Education degree is specially designed to prepare graduates for leadership positions in research, practice or policy. The curriculum is generally divided into core coursework, electives, classes in research methods, and a dissertation. Example course topics include curriculum and instruction leadership, public policy and education, developmental psychopathology, and causes of behavioral disabilities.
  • Doctor of Philosophy: The Doctor of Philosophy degree is for individuals wishing to pursue research activities in an area of interest, such as severe disabilities, early childhood development or visual impairments. Curriculum is tailored to students’ research areas, preparing them for advanced roles as university researchers and faculty members, research leaders at human service agencies, or researchers at private institutes. Example topics of study include autism spectrum disorders, behavior disorders and applied behavior analysis.

Secondary education master’s degrees generally require 60 credit hours of full-time study to complete and may include a student-teaching component or thesis.

The Education Specialist degree (EdS) is a distinctive program of study for individuals interested in graduate studies in special education who do not wish to complete a doctoral degree. Students, who typically must have a master’s degree in special education (or related field) to apply, undertake a curriculum that blends public policy, leadership, program development and student assessment. Graduates with an EdS may leverage their knowledge to pursue careers as school administrators or special education program directors. Although program requirements vary by program, most require between 30 and 45 credit hours of full-time study to complete.

Graduate certificates in special education serve two populations: individuals who want to work in special education but do not have a teaching license and licensed teachers who want to earn a special education endorsement. Students traditionally complete between 15 and 27 credit hours of study in a curriculum focused entirely around special education topics such as special education leadership, diagnosis assessment, classroom management and reading strategies.

Academic Concentrations in Special Education

Special education graduate students may pursue specialized academic concentrations such as those listed below:

  • Applied behavioral analysis
  • Assistive technologies
  • Autism
  • Blindness and visual impairments
  • Deaf and hard of hearing
  • Disabilities services
  • Learning disabilities
  • Moderate and severe disabilities
  • Multisensory reading

Standard Courses in Special Education Degrees

The curriculum of online special education degree programs is based on evidence-based practices that support students with special needs. Instruction is divided between pedagogical knowledge and mentoring in the form of a yearlong classroom-based experience. In addition to completing core requirements for their level of teaching (e.g., elementary, high school), prospective students also complete specialized coursework to earn their special education endorsement. Classes vary by institution, but the table below offers a look at some common classes offered in these programs.

Course Description
Introduction to Educational Research

In this course, students learn how to formulate hypotheses, conduct research and prepare reports.

Students with Emotional / Social / Behavioral Disorders

This class discusses social and emotional disorders within the context of an educational setting, teaching students to identify and assess disorders, create a classroom environment conducive to learning, and manage student issues.

Students with Multiple Disabilities

Students study the underlying nature of learning, social and emotional disorders; explore the latest research findings; and review current trends for adapting instructional models to teach students with multiple disabilities.

Diagnostic Assessment

This course covers assessment, from evaluation to student placement, based on response to intervention (RTI). Topics of study include assessment models, parent communication and involvement, and progress reporting.

Introduction to Communication

Students learn about parent-teacher and home-school collaboration and discuss methods to foster communication and partnerships among parents, teachers and students.

Finding a Quality Special Education Degree Program

To begin the process of selecting a program, students can compile a list of schools that offer online special education degrees. To review their options, students should consider a variety of different factors, from the quality of the curriculum to the expertise of faculty members. Below is a list of five questions students should ask when choosing a program.

  • Is the program approved? Teacher preparation programs, including out-of-state programs, must be approved by the state’s department of education to be of any value to the student.
  • Is the program accredited? Students should attend special education programs that are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
  • Does the curriculum follow CEC standards? Students should check if the program’s curriculum follows curriculum standards set by the Council for Exceptional Children.
  • Are there prerequisite requirements? Some graduate programs in special education may require students to complete coursework before applying to enter.
  • Is there field experience support? Clinical experience is a standard component of special education training. Does the program help students locate local student-teacher site placements, or are students required to act independently?

Accreditation for Special Ed Degree Programs

Accreditation is a voluntary process of review that is conducted at both the institutional and programmatic level. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) is the primary accrediting organization for teacher preparation programs. CAEP works alongside the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) to establish and align curriculum and accreditation standards with CEC teacher preparation guidelines.

Attending an accredited program is important because state departments of education require it for licensure. For more information, visit our page on the overall accreditation process.

Steps to an Online EdS in Special Education

Designed for educators who possess a master’s degree in special education, the EdS in special education prepares students for K-12 leadership opportunities. An EdS is a professionally oriented program of study, so potential students must not only hold a graduate degree but also have years of professional experience prior to applying. Below is a checklist of steps prospective students can take before enrolling in an online EdS graduate program.

Time Before Program Start Date
Step 1

Complete Master of Science in special education degree program

3 to 4 years
Step 2

Gain at least two years of professional experience

2 to 4 years
Step 3

Take Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

2 to 4 years
Step 4

Prepare personal statement and request official transcripts and letters of reference

9 to 12 months

Step 5

Apply to online EdS in special education program

8 to 10 months

Admission to online EdS programs is competitive, with most programs receiving more applications than the number of open positions available. Getting accepted to a program requires more than a solid GPA, and candidates should present themselves as academically prepared, well-rounded educators. Below is a list of three ways prospective online EdS students can make their applications more competitive.

  • Earn certifications Postgraduate certifications show the application committee that a candidate is committed to professional development.
  • Play a broader role in school activities Candidates should show a progression of responsibilities and roles in their K-12 careers. Serving on school committees is one way to round out an application.
  • Attend conferences EdS candidates can make their applications stand out by attending conferences, especially as presenters or panelists.

Career Outlook in Special Education Teaching

Nationally, job growth for special education teachers is projected to reach six percent between 2014 and 2024, according to employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This increase is estimated to create nearly 60,000 openings for educators, with the largest gains expected at the preschool level. Salaries for special education teachers are in line with other K-12 educators — the median annual salary for the profession falls between $54,000 and $58,000. Below is a snapshot of salary and job growth information for specific special education careers.

Career National Median Salary (May 2014) Projected Job Growth (2014 – 2024)
Special Education Teachers (All) $55,980 6%
Preschool Special Education Teachers $54,000 9%
Kindergarten and Elementary School Special Education Teachers $54,570 6%
Middle School Special Education Teachers $56,760 6%
Secondary School Special Education Teachers $57,810 6%

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

Teaching Credentials and Professional Certifications


Like other instructors, special education teachers must complete a teacher preparation program as well as a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a teaching license. However, special education teachers may have to take extra steps to earn a special education endorsement and qualify for a state license. Below is a general overview of the special education licensure process.

Special Education Teaching Credential

A state license both permits teachers to work in special education and establishes the scope of their practice. Licensure requirements vary by state but share common traits. Below is a checklist of common licensing steps for special education teachers.

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited university
  • Complete a state-approved teacher preparation program
  • Do a student teaching practicum
  • Earn passing scores on state-based knowledge examinations or Praxis test (if required)
  • Clear a background check

Beyond the core requirements, some states require teachers to take additional steps to earn an endorsement that qualifies them to work with special needs students. Examples of these steps include the following:

  • Complete an education specialist credentialing program
  • Complete a special education induction program
  • Pass examinations to qualify as a learning behavioral specialist
  • Pass additional special education examinations as determined by the state

Prior to enrolling in a special education program, students are advised to contact their state’s Department of Education to get information about specific licensing requirements.

Special Education Teaching Certifications

Special education teachers can earn additional credentials and certifications that enhance their understanding of industry trends and skills for working with students who have special needs. These credentialing programs also help educators demonstrate their commitment to the field and add their name to the list of leaders on the topic. Below is a snapshot of some of the certifications available.

  • AASEP Board Certification in Special Education

    To qualify for board certification, candidates must hold a master’s degree in a field relevant to working with students with special needs, complete five certificates of advanced professional development (see below) and pass certification examinations. Upon successful completion, candidates can use the academy credentials in their title: B.C.S.E. (Board Certified in Special Education).

  • AASEP Certificate of Advanced Professional Development

    To qualify for a Certificate of Advanced Professional Development from the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, candidates must have an accredited bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and complete one or more certificate courses. These courses include Principles of IEP Development, Review of the Major Principles of Special Education, Understanding Assessment in Special Education, Understanding Response to Intervention (RTI), and Special Education Eligibility.

  • Board Certified Educational Advocate

    Sponsored by the National Special Education Advocacy Institute, the Board Certified Educational Advocate is earned once teachers complete 198 hours of NSEAI-approved curriculum, take 30 hours of continuing education units, do 100 hours of graded practicum experience, pass their examinations, and pay certification fees.

  • ABCTE Certification in Special Education

    The American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence sponsors a certification in special education for candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, complete a background check, and pass examinations on teaching knowledge and special education.

  • National Board Certification

    The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offers a certificate for Exceptional Needs Specialist. To qualify, candidates must have a valid teaching license, a bachelor’s degree or higher, and three years of teaching experience. They must also pass a multicomponent certificate program and examination.

More Online Programs in Education

Education is a broad yet dynamic field. Below is a list of related online programs prospective students may want to consider.

Online Secondary Education Degrees

Designed for educators who wish to teach grades seven to 12, online secondary education degree programs prepare teachers to work in the classroom and specialize in a specific subject area, such as mathematics, science, English, social studies or a foreign language.

Online Elementary Education Degrees

Designed for educators who want to teach grades K-6, online elementary education programs prepare individuals to be effective educators by offering a curriculum that satisfies licensure requirements.

Online Child Development Degrees

Varied in nature, online child development degree programs may be offered at the certificate, bachelor’s and graduate levels. These programs teach students about the stages of youth development from infancy to adolescence.

Useful Sites for Special Education Teachers