The Online Early Childhood Education Degree: A Guide

Online early childhood education degrees equip teachers with the tools they need to nurture the youngest learners, but in a more convenient format. They cover the same nuts and bolts of basic teacher education–early childhood development, classroom management, and early education theory–as traditional programs, and online students can still complete supervised fieldwork in local classrooms.

Web-based students need not sacrifice rigor or career goals for flexibility: online degree options run the gamut from entry-level associate and bachelor’s degrees to advanced, highly-specialized, research-based PhDs. These programs are not boring, cookie-cutter learning experiences. Sophisticated technology and course management tools provide students with a rich, collaborative online learning environment. Notwithstanding common goals and delivery formats, no two online early childhood education degrees are alike. Goals and learning styles still matter, so it pays to do some research before enrolling in a program.

We have compiled a ranking of our top early childhood education degree programs below. The list offers a glimpse at just how diverse these programs can be, both in scope and practice.

Online Degree Options in Early Childhood Education

Online early childhood education degree programs help current and aspiring teachers become more effective educators and classroom leaders. As students advance to higher degree levels, content becomes richer, deeper, and more specialized, giving students a firmer grasp on education theory. Online diplomas, postsecondary certificates, and associate degrees offer entry-level training in early childhood development and education while online bachelor’s degrees are more rigorous. These programs are usually designed with licensing requirements in mind and, therefore, include mandatory student teaching experience in real classrooms. (Note: Students should still verify state standards before enrolling in a program.)

In an advanced degree program, such as an online master’s, professional or doctoral ECE program, students do not just know the latest trends and research affecting the field–they help define them through their own original research. At this level, they also delve deeply into a specialized area of professional interest, for example, early education pedagogy, leadership, or curriculum design.

Savvy students research early childhood education programs carefully, regardless of degree level or specialty. Let’s review how online degrees work–and how they differ.

Online Bachelor’s Degrees in Early Childhood Education

A four-year degree in early childhood education is more common than diplomas and associate degrees–especially for students who want to work in public and elementary schools where a bachelor’s degree is usually the minimum requirement for certification. Online bachelor’s programs prepare students for independent classroom work in various settings, including public elementary schools. Programs usually combine core teaching classes, such as curriculum development, educational psychology, and early education theory, with more specialized electives. Because online bachelor’s degrees are designed with licensing standards in mind, many programs require students to complete supervised student teaching hours in working classrooms. Fortunately, many online schools allow students to complete this hands-on training within their own communities, submitting reports and other assignments online.

Students researching this type of program will find that curriculum at this level focuses on fundamental principles that are specific to teaching and working with younger children, such as child brain development, early childhood behavior, personality development, and motivation. Students also learn how to develop leadership and administrative skills in order to manage a classroom effectively. Initially, students will be classroom learners and observers, but towards the end of their program, they will take on a more active teacher role through required fieldwork such as teaching assistantships.

The following chart highlights just a few of the courses online students might take in an early childhood education bachelor’s degree program:

Online Course Course Description
Introduction to Early Childhood Education

This course gives students a high-level overview of the field of childhood education, including its history, philosophies and career options.

Child Development

This class provides an entry-level introduction to childhood growth and development, and how it impacts learning. Topics include motor, cognitive, social, language and emotional development.

Early Childhood Curriculum and Methods

Students survey common early childhood curriculum development and teaching strategies, and how they impact learning and behavior in a classroom setting.

Learning and Development in Infants and Toddlers

This specialized elective course is ideal for those who would like to work with very young children, like preschool teachers and child care providers. Students review language, cognitive, sensory and motor development in very young children and how various stimuli and teaching strategies impact them.

Early Childhood Nutrition and Health

This course introduces students to the latest regulations and research on early childhood health and nutrition.

Parent & Community Relationships

This course provides strategies for establishing positive, collaborative relationships between early childhood educators and parents.

ECE in Multicultural Environments

Students study diversity and anti-bias issues that arise in early childhood education settings and how to manage them.

Children’s Literature

Children’s literature courses introduce students to the impact books and other media have on the young child’s physical, cognitive and emotional development, and offer strategies for using them effectively in learning environments.

ECE Online Master’s Degrees

Many educators choose to take their education and training a step further in order to advance their teaching careers. In an online master’s degree, core courses typically expand upon undergraduate-level knowledge in childhood development and education, while elective courses allow students to explore specialized interests more deeply. Course listing may seem similar to bachelor’s programs, but grad students will soon find that material is more complex and advanced, allowing for a deeper understanding of early childhood pedagogy as well as policy analysis. Curriculum usually combines theory and research with practical application. Students learn advanced theories and skills, thus developing a deeper understanding of young children’s academic abilities and curiosity in order better connect with young learners and to create a supportive and effective learning environment. Additionally, some online master’s programs offer multiple specialty tracks from which students can choose.

Because master’s programs require that applicants already hold bachelor’s degrees for admission, many students already have ECE training and experience. In fact, it is not uncommon for graduate students to continue to teach full-time to build their resumes and offset education costs. In these cases, the flexibility of online master’s degrees can be exceedingly valuable.

Most early childhood education online master’s programs include student teaching components. Some also require students to attend graduate seminars, complete a brief on-campus residency, complete a faculty-supervised thesis, or pass a series of comprehensive exams. Conferencing tools such as Skype let students virtually attend seminars and collaborate with advisers from the comfort of home, but some schools still require students to report to campus to present their work. Those researching online programs should contact schools directly to clarify expectations and requirements.

Early childhood education courses vary by school, but most online programs supplement core teaching with specialized electives in areas such as educational leadership, special education or curricular design.

The following list is an example of some of the online courses graduate students may take:

Online Course Course Description
Curricular Foundations in ECE

Students study how philosophical, cultural and historical trends influence early childhood curriculum development and teaching methods.

Early Literacy Development and Instruction

This course reviews the latest theories, research and contemporary issues dealing with early literacy development, and how they impact instruction and assessment of young children.

Play in Early Childhood Education

Students examine play theory and its role in a young child’s cognitive, physical and social-emotional development . They also learn how to appropriately integrate play into classrooms and other academic settings.

Early Intervention for Children with Special Needs

This class reaffirms the benefits of identifying children with special needs early and discusses how issues like program design and parent involvement impact success.

Assessment of Young Children

Students study assessment principles, techniques and issues in early childhood, guided learning environments.

Instructional Methodologies for Young Children

Students survey appropriate, cross-curricular teaching methodologies for young children.

Instructional Leadership

This course examines the nuances of planning, coordinating and implementing instructional activities in the early childhood setting, and typical barriers to success.

Capstone: Practical Application in ECE

Students design and participate in field research projects that integrate and apply ECE theories and practices mastered in earlier coursework. Projects are carried out within their local communities while ongoing assessments and data are submitted online.

Online EdS in ECE

This advance, terminal degree option is best suited for experienced educators who wish to transition into university teaching, supervisory roles, curriculum planning and development, or academic consulting, but do not want to earn a doctoral degree.

At this level, students explore various topics relevant to early childhood education to increase their understanding of research and theory in the field and thus enhance their skill and knowledge base.

Online EdS degree programs can vary tremendously in scope and focus. While many require one to two years of full-time study, online students can often adjust course loads to better meet their scheduling needs and comprehension. Keep in mind that many EdS programs require candidates to have at least three years of classroom teaching experience to be admitted.

Early Childhood Education Online PhDs

Online doctoral degrees in early childhood education differ from an online EdS in many ways, but research is perhaps the most crucial. EdS degrees may include a capstone course or applied research project, but this is a small portion of the full curriculum. PhD students, on the other hand, must write and defend a dissertation that meaningfully advances research in the field. This process can be intense and takes more time–usually at least three years–to complete.

Students pursuing online PhDs in early childhood education tend to focus their work in an area of professional interest, such as early education curriculum design, assessment, policy, or leadership. They may be required to complete an on-campus residency, but most courses can be completed online. Some colleges allow online PhD students to defend their dissertations from home using video communication tools. Others prefer or require students to do so in person. Prospective students should clarify such requirements before applying so that they can plan accordingly.

Online Degrees in ECE: How it Works

Web-based learning is gaining steam in virtually all areas of higher education–even early childhood education, which frequently incorporates hands-on and practical learning experience in preschools and other learning environments. Online early childhood education degree programs are designed with both convenience and quality in mind. In an accredited program, students should gain the same thorough understanding of issues, practices, and theories that shape early childhood education as their campus-based peers. That’s because curriculum are delivered using sophisticated and collaborative course management systems that promote rich learning experiences no matter where students live.

However, teaching is a hands-on job and there is no substitute for real classroom experience. As a result, many programs–especially bachelor’s and master’s degrees–are designed with common state teaching and licensing standards in mind, and that means completing at least a semester of student teaching. Fortunately, online students do not need to relocate to fulfill the requirement. In most cases, they can complete student teaching assistantships or internships as well as applied research projects in local schools and still submit reports and other relevant work online. Even students pursuing advanced, research-focused professional and PhD degrees online can usually streamline on-site residencies and research projects to minimize travel. Some schools even permit graduate- and post-graduate early childhood education students to present and defend their theses and dissertations via videoconferences software.

It is important to keep in mind that though online ECE programs strive to prepare students for licensing, the college or university conferring the degree may not be headquartered in the student’s home state. Therefore, researching your state’s teaching requirements carefully is an important part of the decision-making process. Contact schools directly to request more information or to inquire about accreditation.

ECE Teacher Profile

Tina Smiley is a lead teacher for Bellingham Preschool of the Arts in Bellingham, Washington. While Tina loves children and her current position, she did not set out to become a preschool teacher. She earned her undergraduate degree in human biology from Cornell, and had thoughts of becoming a physical therapist. However, as she learned more about that field, it was not for her. Tina had always enjoyed working with children. She had babysat while growing up, and worked in a Family Resource Center during college, so when she took some courses in Cornell’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies that introduced her to early childhood education, she was ready for that seed to take root.

Tina earned an M.S. in Early Childhood Education from Wheelock College in Boston. Since then, Tina has “enjoyed a diverse career with this degree.” She worked in a preschool in Boston for three years, and then served as lead teacher for the Cornell University Nursery School. This was an exciting position, because the school was a demonstration school and part of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Tina liked the position so much that she might have stayed, but life intervened. She got married, and her husband got a job that took them across the country to Olympia, Washington. There Tina worked with as a Head Start program for three years, until her first child was born. “It was very tough work,” Tina said, but she learned a lot. She was responsible for “home visiting and teaching families how to support their children’s development.”

Tina left teaching for five years, because she had another child. When her oldest entered kindergarten, it was time to work again. Her Massachusetts certification allowed her to get a Washington state teaching certificate easily, but she also added a reading endorsement from Western Washington University. After this, Tina took a position at Whatcom Day Academy, which was appealing in part because her younger son got “free tuition” there. However, balancing work and family became a challenge so Tina tried running a “small half-day, 4 day per week preschool” at home.

She “enjoyed running my own preschool, but missed working with colleagues,” so when the Bellingham Preschool of the Arts advertised a new position, it sounded great. She started teaching the kindergarten readiness class, and enjoyed the opportunity to apply her arts background. She’s since moved to teaching the Tuesday/Thursday preschool there, and will be teaching the three day a week program this year as well, due to another teacher’s injury. When asked what she enjoyed most about this career, Tina said:

“What I find most satisfying about working in the Early Childhood field is the opportunity to impact a child’s life, and also to see the world through their eyes. There is no better feeling than watching a child’s eyes light up or smile with delight as you watch him/her perform a skill, display a talent or make a discovery that you helped to facilitate, either through personal teaching and interaction or through the physical and social environment that you created. And…that is the quest of the Early Childhood Educator: to set-up and maintain a dynamic, nurturing environment, rich in opportunities for different types of learning, that supports the unique development of each child.”

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