Information technology embraces the theory, development and application of business tools and security processes that collect, store, communicate and protect data. Online IT degree programs can prepare beginning students for entry into one of the nation’s fastest-growing occupational fields, or may qualify current IT professionals for career growth and advancement.
Advancements in IT are deployed daily in the manufacture of automation, computer, telecommunications and multimedia devices used in every sector of society from manufacturing and finance to education, entertainment and healthcare. Within the industry, employment rose by 37 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The rapid explosion of America’s “app culture” along with growing demands for the storage and safeguarding of data continue to fuel growth in the IT sectors.
The educational path to an IT career can vary from earning an associate degree to a doctorate – with a wide range of degrees and certifications in-between. The development and expansion of IT online degree programs to meet demands for qualified professionals make it possible for students with hectic family schedules and job commitments to train for a promotion, a different position or an entirely new career. The progressive nature of online programs allows students to go as far as they like, entering the field along the way. For example, an online associate degree lays the building blocks for those seeking IT scholarships for further studies.
The following guide helps students determine where they are in the progression of IT careers, from entry level to advanced occupations. Discover the degrees and certifications that apply to jobs in fields such as hardware, software, engineering, programming, support, networks, telecom and IT security.
Information technology education is modular, building upon a basic foundation and advancing in technical expertise. This overview of degree options includes some examples of credit requirements and time needed for completion, and illustrates key industry roles as they may map to educational requirements.
The associate degree is the starting point for many students in exploring IT through courses such as introduction to computer science, basic programming languages, operating systems, technical communication, website development, database concepts and introduction to networks and security. At the same time, the AS degree includes the core studies in general education – humanities, math, sciences, arts – required of all students at the post-secondary level. Programs differ by school, with degrees such as Associate of Science (AS) in information systems administration or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) with an IT support specialization.
Graduates have the fundamentals needed to transfer to a 4-year degree program, where they may focus on classes in their chosen field. Typical post-AS degree employment options include beginning applications programmers, computer technicians, support desk personnel and website developers.
Students pursuing their IT bachelor’s degree online have two main options: 1) entering with an associate degree in-hand, or 2) beginning their program as a freshman. For those who transfer their credits to a 4-year school, the Bachelor of Science (BS) degree begins with classes that advance student knowledge beyond introductory courses. Those entering at the freshman level may take introductory core IT courses along with general education classes, advancing to more challenging, career specific coursework. Studies can include major tracks in information security and assurance, database management, network administration and advanced software development. Students may undertake courses in technical communication, systems design and architecture, database design and modeling and digital forensics
The BS can build a foundation for entry- and mid-level career positions across the IT spectrum. Post-BS degree employment options include computer systems analysts, database administrators, network architects or administrators, and software developers for systems and applications.
IT master’s degree programs examine advanced theory and applications of specializations as they relate to management roles in business, finance, manufacturing, healthcare, government and nonprofit organizations. The Master of Science (MS) degree combines advanced core specialty classes with IT problem solving to tackle real business challenges. Students moving up the chain of command can also undertake studies in ethics, business intelligence and analytics, information security and assurance and project management.
Among the potential post-MS degree employment options are roles requiring work experience as well as educational qualifications: chief information officers, computer security specialists, information technology project managers, IT business analysts, network systems analysts, systems architects and web administrators.
The PhD represents the apex of achievement in higher education. Coursework may concentrate on top-level theories, strategies and applications of IT specializations in technology pertinent to management and scholarship. Students undertake advanced research, using methodology applicable to industrywide issues, business problems and higher education in technology. The program typically involves in-depth independent research that evolves into a dissertation that contributes to the knowledge of the field.
Post-PhD options include leadership roles in business and industry, national security, international e-commerce, engineering, public and private research, consulting and post-secondary IT education.
Certifications benchmark the expertise of IT professionals working with hardware and software systems or methodologies. There are hundreds of certifications available across the range of IT specializations. Commonly sought certifications that are vendor neutral include these:
Many other IT certifications are vendor specific, for example:
Education programs leading to certifications or the aptitude to pass certification examinations are offered by vendors, professional IT organizations, and by online colleges, universities and trade schools. A certification can qualify IT personnel for advancement or new roles in technology professions.
The sheer number of online schools with IT degrees, with options from associate to doctoral programs, can be overwhelming. Courses may be offered entirely online, or in online/on campus hybrid programs, each with their own admissions criteria and academic requirements for graduation. From beginning students to the most advanced technical wizards, it’s vital to choose a program that best matches career goals and the required studies to attain them. Here are some core considerations regarding what makes an online IT program successful:
Accreditation is the voluntary, independent review performed on institutions offering IT degrees to verify the academic quality of the school. It attests to other universities and potential employers that the degree earned meets specific standards related to computer software, hardware and security. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the expertise of regional accreditation agencies endorsed by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Proper accreditation protects the value of a graduate’s degree. Schools that are not accredited may be disqualified from participation in federal financial aid programs. And students transferring from colleges lacking accreditation may not receive credit for previous classwork. Schools offering an IT degree online may hold accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. The Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology is the agency of choice for more than 3,400 schools offering computing and engineering majors.
For many students, the main reason they are pursuing an IT degree online is the advantage of having a flexible, round-the-clock course delivery system. In an asynchronous program, students work at their own pace to complete course objectives. That means they need 24/7 access to all course materials, including streaming lectures, digital homework, lab sessions and examinations. Self-paced courses still have deadlines for deliverables such as research papers, spot exams, collaborative assignments and class discussions facilitated by online bulletin boards, multimedia and teleconferencing.
Unlike traditional degree programs with registration for fall, winter and spring semesters, many online IT programs open new courses based on student demand. Online schools set their own course schedules and may create new sections every eight to ten weeks. In addition, there are often introductory sessions to acquaint students with the virtual classroom software. These and other first-semester courses remain in rotation through the school year so entering students can join when they are ready, rather than waiting for the end of a semester.
IT students should search for online degree and certificate programs that have faculty and resources that connect with industry associations and employers. Most schools have career and course advisors, however, the more successful schools integrate education with professional advancement. They may sponsor career fairs with recruiters and host online resources for creating resumes and performing IT-related job searches. Faculty mentors design research and project assignments that may be done in the workplace and result in documents that go into student portfolios. Degree programs requiring internships should maintain IT resources or employer networks for placing technologists where they can best highlight their abilities.
Technology occupations are among the fastest-growing professions in the country. The BLS expects employment for information security analysts to expand by 37 percent during the 2012-2022 decade, adding more than 27,000 new positions. U.S. News & World Report ranks the best technology jobs for 2015, including:
Alexis D. graduated from an online Bachelor of Science in Information Technology program recently. By the time she received her diploma, she was already fielding job offers. Prior to enrolling, Alexis worked as a secretary at a law firm in California. Today, she serves as a network administrator with an Orange County credit union, and she plans to pursue an online graduate specialization in information architecture.
It sounds like you do well with online learning. What do you value the most?
The most? The lower cost of getting a degree and a quicker way to get it. Semesters and classes are shorter and you can get more done in a year. But I also like that you can re-watch class presentations and lectures as many times as you need to absorb the information.
What did you do before joining your BS program?
I had a high school education and raced into the working world without considering college. I had friends who were making decent salaries as secretaries. But it gets old fast when you can’t make enough money to do the things that interest you. I learned HTML coding on my own and built a few websites for friends — and discovered how much I love it.
As for your specific degree program, what did you appreciate?
In a single word: scheduling. The classes I took in database fundamentals and networking concepts were available several times during the year. If I wanted another course one semester, I took it knowing I could get my foundations covered later and still graduate on time.
Did you have challenges keeping up?
I would have if I hadn’t gone through orientation! To put it simply, every class has study modules and every module has a deadline. You know what’s expected of you and when it’s expected. I can’t think of any other part of my life that has lent itself to such precise scheduling. It wasn’t a matter of when I did my work as long as I sent it in on time. The work was difficult, but I had lots of support from my faculty adviser and the other students.