Earning a Special Education Degree Online

Special education teachers are a vital part of learning for those who have trouble with the typical classroom pace and setting. Teachers in special education are trained to create curriculum plans for students who need unique attention on an educational, social, emotional, and sometimes even physical level. It can be a challenging career, but also one that is highly rewarding. According to the 2013-2014 PayScale College Salary Report, 83 percent of special education teachers believe their jobs make the world a better place.

Fortunately, through online learning a special education teaching degree is available to anyone who wants to pursue this career path. To help in the decision on which schools and programs might be best, take a look at our special education degrees rankings list, which highlights the schools and degree programs that can help special education teachers prepare for the rigors of this challenging profession.

Special Education Online Degree Options

Earning an online bachelor’s degree is the minimum for those who want to build a career in special education. Some states, however, require a master’s degree in special education or a closely related field in order to begin work as a teacher. In most cases, students can take all the required courses online, then complete the practical experience requirement through the cooperation of a local school district. Programs in special education usually culminate in a teacher certification or licensure.

Students can choose between numerous online degree programs. A degree specific to special education prepares students to enter the field and later specialize in a particular area. As an example, some might choose to focus on a particular discipline, such as science or mathematics, with an emphasis on special education. No matter the degree path, students who study special education can expect to learn about various types of disabilities and how to present educational material to students in a way that makes it easier to understand.

To be certain that an online program offers quality education, students should look for special education degree programs that have been accredited through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) as well as the Council for Exceptional Children.

SPED Online Bachelor’s Degrees

To earn a bachelor’s degree in special education, a student will need to complete typical general education requirements, as well as take special education classes and observe and work with students in public classrooms and agencies. Most of this work can be done through online means; for instance, some online schools offer students the opportunity to complete all courses online, leaving only the supervised teaching practicum requirement to be completed in-person. In addition, colleges and universities tend to have partnerships with local public schools where students can observe and practice the teaching methods they learn in class. Some online programs also require students to complete a full-time internship before graduating. This internship can often be completed in the student’s local area.

In a special education online bachelor’s degree, students develop the knowledge and skills required to effectively instruct and work with students who have mild to moderate disabilities. Courses often focus on foundations of special education, classroom management, effective teaching practices, various types of disabilities and curriculum planning, design, and development. Students also learn how to evaluate and track the progress of children with special needs. Child development and psychology courses are commonly required.

Example curriculum:

Course Description
Educating the Exceptional Learner

Studies of the unique learning needs of the exceptional student, including appropriate instructional modifications and accommodations for individuals and groups.

Educational Psychology

Theories and principles of psychology that have influenced curriculum development and teaching approaches, exploring behavioral and cognitive approaches to learning, motivation and instruction.

Special Education Litigation and Law

Discussion of legal issues, precedent-setting court decisions and current law relating to special education and disabilities. Focuses strongly on compliance, student and parent rights, local, state and district policies and more.

Foundations of Special Education

An introduction to special education, including the current laws, common standards, research practices and practical application of instruction for special needs students.

Curriculum, Methods and Assessment

Focuses on various subjects, including mathematics, English, science and the like. Students learn to build and enhance curriculums for special education students, assess the success of the program and explore teaching methods.

Strategies for Teaching: Emotional/Behavioral Challenges

Studies on how to handle the child with emotional or behavioral challenges in the classroom setting, including curriculums tailored to the student, communication with parents and more.

Strategies for Teaching: Physical Health/Impairment

Students learn to work with the child who has physical disabilities or impairments that require special attention in order to provide a proper learning atmosphere.

Classroom Management

Focuses on how to engage students and manage the learning environment, including proper practices for dealing with behavioral/emotional issues, physical space limitations and more.

Online Master’s Degrees in Special Education

A special education online master’s degree prepares students for career advancement or further specialization. At the graduate level, colleges often have two degree options: the Master of Education (M.Ed.) is a professional degree oriented toward classroom teaching and also prepares students for leadership roles in schools. Students who wish to enter academia or conduct research usually earn a Master of Science (M.S.) degree.

Regardless of the type of degree, online master’s students take courses that help enhance their teaching and instructional design skills so that they can better meet the unique needs of special education students. At this level, students may also learn about more severe disabilities or about mild to moderate cross-categorical disabilities.

The distance learning master’s degree program is often designed for working professionals, and can be taken entirely online. Most students who enter the master’s degree program have already completed the required practicum, supervised student teaching or internship, and are now ready to move into a higher level of education and responsibility.

Many colleges and universities also allow online master’s students to specialize in a certain area of special education. Examples of potential specializations include:

  • Autism
  • Assistive Technology
  • Language and Cultural Studies
  • Learning and Behaviors Disorders
  • Moderate Special Needs
  • Moderate and Severe Disabilities
  • Visual Impairment

Example curriculum:

Course Course Description
Foundations of Special Education in Graduate Studies

Students explore the historical, philosophical and sociological influences that have led to the current special education structure, as well as focus on the common trends, issues and opportunities presented in the special education field.

Professional, Ethical and Legal Practices in Special Education

Focus on the legal issues, court decisions, current law, ethical considerations, and professional conduct expected of special education professionals.

Communication in Special Education

Studies on how to best communicate with students who have disabilities, the parents and guardians, other professionals in the special education arena and administration personnel.

Assessment and Eligibility in Special Education

Students learn to use assessment tools to determine the severity of an educational deficit, plan curriculums to correct the educational issue, determine eligibility for certain programs and more.

Creating Effective Learning Environments

Focuses on creating safe, secure, culturally sensitive and adaptable educational spaces for students who have a wide variety of disabilities or concerns. This also includes focus on behavior management, adaptive behaviors, positive reinforcement and more.

Advanced Methodologies

In-depth study of what has worked in the past for special education students and just as importantly, what has not. Includes methods of assessment, the role of culture in learning and the like.

Methods of Teaching

Focus on specific teaching in areas such as mathematics, science, reading comprehension and more, with the special needs student in mind.

U.S. and State Legal Issues

Students can expect an in-depth study of the constitutional rights of students and their parents, disability law and how it applies to special education, and focus on the legal issues in the state in which they intend to teach.

Online Ed.S. in Special Education

Students looking for advanced learning opportunities beyond the master’s degree might find a Specialist in Education degree option helpful. This non-licensure program allows students to further their role in the education of exceptional students. The EdS in Special Education is designed for future leaders of public and private schools as well as community service agencies. The focus is on research methodology and allows graduates to effectively evaluate special education programs and curricula for improvement.

Like the online master’s degree, online specialist degrees are usually designed with the working professional in mind. Those who are already deep in the practice of special education can often earn their EdS online, never setting foot in a classroom, yet learning all they need to know in order to advance in the professional field.

Most online programs include a final capstone project, enabling the graduate to formally demonstrate the knowledge gained throughout the program. This capstone project must often be completed in person; however, most colleges and universities can make arrangements with local schools, where students can fulfill their capstone requirements. For working professionals, this completion might be possible at their home school, where they are already teaching.

Online PhD in Special Education

With the move toward inclusion classrooms and the ever-present need for improved methodologies, research is always needed to create and evaluate new policies and programs in special education. A special education online PhD is a research-intensive degree. Additionally, students are usually required to participate in research and teaching practicums as well as complete a capstone project or dissertation and defense prior to graduation.

A PhD in special education prepares the graduate for leadership and administrative roles in K-12 schools, universities, research settings, or social service organizations. The program focuses on research and teaching and is designed to help students develop expertise in a specific area. PhD candidates can also choose their own area of study, developing a plan that qualifies them to enter the specific field of special education they prefer upon graduation.

Though most of the PhD program can be taken online, capstone projects often require in-person, supervised work. Fortunately, many colleges and universities understand that PhD candidates are very busy working professionals, and can make arrangements accordingly. Dissertation defense is usually presented to a committee of colleagues, peers and instructors. Though this is traditionally done in person, the dissertation defense might be completed through online technologies.

Online SPED Degrees: How it Works

Earning an online special education degree has many advantages. Students can study from anywhere and on their own time, eliminating the need to be on campus. It’s important to note, however, that online special education degree programs are just as rigorous as their campus-based counterparts. Students should not confuse “online” with “easy.” In addition, because a special education degree requires practical, hands-on experience working with students, it cannot be completely earned online. Online universities often create opportunities for students to work with host teachers in local schools.

Special education degree programs typically prepare students to become certified in the state in which the program is offered. Since online degrees can be completed from anywhere, students should ensure that program outcomes successful meet all requirements for the state in which they want to work. Some online special education programs also work with students to ensure they are meeting their state’s requirements.

Alumni Profile

A former physical education teacher, Carol Lang fell in love with the atmosphere of special education after visiting a friend’s self-contained special education classroom. “The intensity of the therapies, teacher knowledge, and general caring and understanding from the staff encouraged me to return to school and get my degree in special education,” she says.

Lang earned a Bachelor of Science in physical education from Southeast Missouri State University in 1965 and spent five years teaching PE in the public school system. After her visit to her friend’s classroom, Carol went back to earn a certificate in special education from Texas Woman’s University and later a Master of Arts in education with a specialization in severe and profound special education from George Mason University.

Lang says, “My physical education classes and work experience gave me a basic understanding of anatomy and movement, which helped years later in working with physical therapists and handling and positioning of children with severe disabilities.” However, looking back at her career and education, Lang found that classes dealing with special education laws and litigation as well as assistive technology and communication were the most helpful in her work.

Though recently retired from teaching in the K-12 setting, Lang now teaches both graduate and undergraduate special education courses for Northern Arizona University. She has 24 years of teaching experience in Texas, Virginia and Arizona and has worked with children five to 25 years old with mental, physical, emotional and neurological disabilities.

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