Students hoping to achieve an online degree in communications have numerous opportunities to explore. Online communications programs were among the first to be delivered via distance learning, and remain popular higher educational options today. But how do students find the right one? The following page makes it easier to locate quality online communications programs, whether at the associate, bachelor's or graduate level. It offers an in-depth guide to earning an online communications degree, from day one all the way to graduation and beyond. So whether you want a list of programs or more information about the discipline, this page can help.
Communications degrees are most commonly associated with a career in media. Journalists, reporters, broadcasters and other media professionals deliver information visually, verbally or in print to audiences across the globe. A communications degree, however, does not necessitate a career in media. Students who complete online communications programs often find jobs in wide range of unaffiliated industries and careers, including advertising, marketing and public relations. Communications majors not only open the door to diverse career choices, but they also face a lower rate of unemployment than most other majors. Let’s take a detailed look at online communications degrees at each level of higher education.
Although some uniform standards apply, there is no set timeline that every student will follow during his or her pursuit of a communications degree online. One student may begin at the associate level and work through a master’s, while another may begin at a bachelor’s degree and make it terminal. This same variation occurs with delivery mode. Although most students opt for a fully campus-based program, some take a handful of online classes to increase flexibility, and others go the full online route to maximize it. The following timeline explores all online communications degree options from start to finish, including purpose, example courses, and, perhaps most importantly, what to look for when it comes to quality.
Associate of Arts degrees are available online, but they are not nearly as common as more in-depth degrees. They are offered primarily by community colleges, or by fully online schools that specialize in distance learning. A two-year program may provide students with rudimentary theoretical and historical aspects of communication. It is possible to enter the workforce with only an associate degree, but they would likely be locked out of many media and marketing jobs. In addition to mandatory core courses, an associate degree is comprised of general education units and electives. Unlike other fields that provide certificates, communication is a field that generally requires a full degree. Therefore, institutions offering 2-year degrees online are rare in comparison to the many schools that offer bachelor’s degrees in communications online.
Communication is among the 10 most popular undergraduate majors in the country (Source: US News and World Report). Although the basis of a communications degree is dissemination of information through the written and spoken word, students should expect to supplement their instruction with courses in graphic design, layout, public speaking, research and media writing. Communications majors will hone their skills in the art of communicating ideas by gathering information and relaying it through writing, video, television, the Internet, social media or some combination of them all. Common courses or specializations in a 4-year online communications program include:
Broadcast journalism: Students will become proficient in the dissemination of information through the visual- and audio-based mediums of radio, video and television. They will study reporting with audio and video, broadcast newsroom basics, the nuances of editing, the editorial process, ethics and standards in broadcast journalism, writing for broadcast and documentary production.
New media: As the digital age continues to advance the evolution of journalistic mediums and practices, the coursework involved with the study of new media changes and evolve right along with them. New media studies include social media relations, social media marketing, social media technology, multi-media design and applications, web and graphic design, advertising in electronic media, electronic media platforms such as blogs, new media presentation and layout and digital media law.
Videography: Photojournalists and videographers wield a power unrivaled by any other player in the field. Video delivers the stimuli of sound and sight simultaneously, creating compelling content that is the most viewed and most shared on the Internet. Students will learn about editing software, evolving camera technology, video for mobile, multimedia reporting, storytelling through video, raw footage editing, sports video, live video vs. stock video, audio principles, subtitling, video graphics and writing for video.
Other primary courses include:
The application process and requirements can differ widely depending on the college or university, the program or type of degree. Virtually all credible online communications programs, however, will require some form of the following:
Full-time students generally finish an online M.A. in communications in a year, part-time students in two years. Master’s courses are taken following the successful completion of a B.A. or B.S. in Communication with a minimum GPA, usually at least 3.0. Just as when applying for undergraduate programs, mitigating factors such as strong recommendations are factored into acceptance decisions. Some master’s programs require hybrid study, which is dominated by online coursework, but supplemented with on-campus requirements.
Online M.S. Communications degrees are still fairly rare. Walden University’s fully online program, for example, is one of the first of its kind. It can be completed in 20 months, and it focuses on career preparation in the global marketplace. It requires 30 total semester credits. The goal of an M.S. in communications is to provide students with additional advanced study in the field of communication to help prepare them for communication careers in business, industry, or media. Generally, a student will choose two main areas of study.
Many universities and colleges offer doctoral degrees in communication online. A PhD qualifies and prepares students to teach communications and conduct research at the university level. Many programs grant students assistantships once they are accepted. Coursework requires students to demonstrate a broad knowledge in the field, as well as the ability to identify, explain and evaluate primary theories. Generally, it takes three years to complete a PhD. This includes coursework, as well as examinations. Most programs expect students to become broadly knowledgeable while displaying expertise in at least two areas of research. Students are also required to write and defend doctoral dissertations. A dissertation is a student’s first independent research and significant contribution to their field. Some dissertations find their way into academic or industry publications.
Online communications degrees can focus on anything from journalism to marketing. They can be started at the two-year associate level and taken all the way to PhD. Like any other degree program, some are better than others. No matter what program you choose, look for these criteria.
Accreditation ensures an independent agency has reviewed a college or university to ensure it meets high and consistent academic standards, and that it has the financial resources to meet these standards. Accredited online communications programs have received an official stamp of approval that is recognized by other schools, employers and the government.
The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, or ACEJMC, is the agency responsible for the evaluation of professional journalism and mass communications programs in colleges and universities. ACEJMC requires its programs to provide retention and graduation data to the public. Data are to be published on the program’s website and updated annually. Programs not meeting this requirement are placed on probation.
There is a direct correlation between student support and graduation rates. A dedicated advisor should help a student from the enrollment process through graduation. A student should be able to change advisors at any time. Upon graduation, alumni should — for the rest of their lives — receive support from their college or university in career advancement or in the pursuit of further post-secondary education.
Nowhere is it more important to have stellar supporting resources than in online education. Since the student will be limited to predominantly digital interaction, it is important to look for communication technology, remote support, digital libraries and other platforms that empower students.
Students must be able to take classes on schedules that suit their needs and lifestyles. Courses should be available on a part-time or full-time basis, night and day, and seasonal and out-of-session options should be available. Instructors should be university or college professors who teach at the physical campus, as well.
Want to learn about an online communications degree? Then it’s time to hear from someone at the source. A graduate who has experienced the pros, cons, highs and lows of the journey and emerged with degree in hand. Let’s hear how Pubudu, an immigrant from Sudan, viewed his online communications program at the University of Maryland.
What were your biggest challenges?
Staying motivated. When I started classes, I was working full time, so I originally though the biggest challenge would be finding time to do the coursework. But once I settled in, I became my own worst enemy. It wasn’t that I lacked time to get the work done. I lacked motivation. The beginning was tough because I didn’t have the motivating pressure of physical presence, of having to physically show up. Before this, every academic pursuit came with built-in pressure, kind of like “show up here at this time with this book.” The flexibility of online learning put me in charge. Eventually I became my own drill sergeant. But in the first six weeks or so, I struggled.
What most surprised you about online learning?
The personal relationships I developed with the professor and the other students. I went into it with the assumption that online learning was very impersonal — that since it was geographically distant, it must be emotionally distant, as well. I think it was more personal — more one on one — than physical classes I took in the past.
What made you pursue communications?
In Sudan, where I grew up, war was a fact of life. My mother and my brother escaped to the United States before the fighting affected us directly, but this was not the case for many of our friends and family. When Western media outlets began showing up, things got better wherever they went. It was like the men perpetrating the violence knew that with news media there, the horrible acts they committed wouldn’t remain secret, so they stopped their attacks or fled. News people had this incredible power. They frightened powerful, dangerous men — but they didn’t even carry guns. I thought they were so brave. I became obsessed with journalism. I said to myself, when I make it to America, I will become a journalist.
But you didn’t become a journalist!
I know! If you would have told me then that I would have focused on social-media marketing, I would have laughed. Why waste your life selling things to people you’ve never met? But as I began my studies, I become obsessed with a new kind of power — the power of the Internet. This device — this thing — that could connect far away people who would have otherwise lived their entire lives without knowing that the other existed. It seemed almost magical.
Did employers give the same credibility to your online communications degree as they would have to a traditional diploma?
Yes. But part of it was my attitude, my outlook. My counselor — Mrs. Harrison — told me to “just own it”. I made a point of putting high up on my resume that I studied online. I knew other students who just wrote on their resumes that they graduated from the University of Maryland, sort of like they were hiding the fact that they got their diploma by studying online. But I “owned” my online degree. I took it as a point of pride that I found a way to work full time and pursue an education on my own time. I think my employer appreciated the initiative — the ambition.