Online Degrees in Information Technology

One benefit of earning an information technology degree is its versatility. From brief certificate programs to advanced doctoral degrees, information technology training can be customized to meet the needs of the individual student.

Because of the broad range of study, skills learned in information technology programs differ from degree to degree. In general, students learn the fundamentals of the technology they study, be it a computer programming language, an operating system, the structure of a database, or the engineering skills required to design new systems of technology. Unlike more theoretical degrees in computer science, information technology degrees generally focus on applied skills.

Choosing the Right Online IT Degree

Campus-based and online technology degrees in information technology are available at all levels, and the appropriate degree program for the individual depends on the student's career goals. An associate degree in information technology, for example, includes basic training in computer programming, computer networks, Web development and troubleshooting -- leading to entry-level technical and support-related positions.

A bachelor's degree is considered the standard for many careers in information management and database administration. A bachelor's degree in information technology generally includes an emphasis on business applications of technological systems and may focus on software development, software testing or database management, among other options.

Master's degrees in information technology are often considered best for students looking to advance into management roles, while a doctoral degree is generally required for post-secondary teachers and researchers in the field.

In addition to the full degree programs above, certification training exists to give students a targeted education in program suites and technologies. Vendors like Microsoft and Cisco offer popular certification programs.

One specific benefit of earning an information technology degree online is in gaining familiarity with the online education medium. For aspiring IT trainers, online education can mean gaining familiarity and experience with web-based learning technologies like forums. What's more, those who already have a working knowledge of online practices may make a smooth transition to the online training format.

Popular Information Technology careers

Take a look at the most popular information technology careers in 2010, ranked by number of employees in the field, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Computer support specialists: 579,270 workers
  • Software developers, applications: 499,280 workers
  • Computer systems analysts: 495,800 workers
  • Software developers, systems software: 378,920 workers
  • Computer programmers: 333,620 workers

Computer specialists can be found in fields varying from automotive technology to health care to the arts. An analytical mind is best suited to information technology training, and precision calculations are often required. After years of experience, workers in IT might move into management positions in business or towards expert positions in IT. Some workers go into consulting, working one-on-one with management teams in other businesses.

Information technology at a glance:

  • Popular IT careers: Software engineers; network systems and data communications analysts; computer and information systems managers; computer network, systems, and database administrators; computer support specialists
  • Salary range for common careers: $49,930 (computer support specialists) - $123,280 (computer information systems managers), according to 2010 data from the BLS
  • Fastest growing IT careers (2008-2018): network systems and data communications analysts (53 percent), computer software engineers, applications (34 percent), computer software engineers, systems software (30 percent), according to the BLS
  • Metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of computer and information systems managers: Framingham, MA; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA; Durham, NC

Individuals and businesses increasingly rely on technology to stay connected and accomplish daily tasks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the IT industry to grow at a brisk pace over the next decade, stating there is a need for experts who can maintain networks, develop new applications and secure digital information (bls.gov/opub, 2013).

Online associate degree programs in information technology help prepare students for entry-level IT positions. Programs are designed to provide graduates with a broad-based skill set that typically includes website design, networking, database management, troubleshooting, server administration, hardware installation and software creation. Some programs specifically ready students for industry certification exams issued by Microsoft and CompTIA, for example. Due to the various fields within information technology, students often pursue a single concentration with their degree, such as help desk administration, network administration, or Web or application development.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Information Technology Entail?

For full-time students, an associate degree in information technology generally takes around two years to complete, depending on the program they choose. Courses help prepare students to perform the various IT functions that support individual users, companies, governments and nonprofit organizations. Available classes differ between programs, but some examples of core offerings are:

  • Networking: This course introduces students to the concepts behind today's computer networks, such as design and data delivery methods, operating system administration and troubleshooting. Students practice basic installation and administration of network operating systems, gaining familarity with related hardware and software components. Other topics may include administrator tasks, server organization, user management and permissions, security features and shared printing.
  • Website Development: In this course, students learn the basics of web design, from planning (interface design, site mapping, and storyboards) to execution using computer languages (HTML, XHTML, and CSS). Coursework typically covers how to incorporate, format and manage elements like tables, forms, hyperlinks, navigation and multimedia as well. To pratice website development, students might be asked to construct a page from scratch, or improve the design of an existing one.
  • Programming: This course explores fundamental information and techniques needed to write programs, including variables, input, output, looping, and program flow. In order to gain programming experience, students may be tasked with designing and developing simple applications on their own or with a group of classmates.

Other potential core courses include database management, problem solving, information systems management, operating system administration and even customer service. Students are also typically required to complete general education credits in English, mathematics, science, and the arts before graduating.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Information Technology

Individuals who earn an online IT associate degree may be qualified to work in the areas of network support, software development, network architecture or Web development. According to the BLS, two specific occupations where, in some cases, applicants need only an associate degree are computer support specialist and network and computer systems administrator.

Computer support specialists, sometimes called technical support specialists or help desk technicians, provide assistance and guidance to individuals and firms using computer software or equipment. After landing this type of position, workers are typically required to participate in a months-long training program. The BLS expects jobs in this profession to grow 18 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for computer support specialists may be especially favorable in the health care sector (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Network and computer systems administrators oversee an organization's data systems, including local area networks, wide area networks, and intranets. While a bachelor's degree is typically required for these positions, some employers may accept candidates with an associate degree and relevant work experience. Employment for these workers is slated to increase by 28 percent nationally from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations. There should continue to be a high demand for these administrators, as more and more organizations adopt newer technologies and the trend toward mobile networks gains traction (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Individuals interested in furthering their education and training in information technology may pursue a bachelor's degree in the subject, which could open doors to numerous other occupations within the industry. Master's and doctoral degrees in IT are available online as well.

As more organizations turn to computer technology to accomplish their goals, and the trend of mobile technology takes root, demand for IT professionals will continue to grow, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/opub, 2013). One way individuals can prepare to enter this field is through an online bachelor's degree in information technology. For those already working in IT, bachelor's programs may provide an opportunity to continue their education, advance in their career or pursue different employment options within the industry.

While curriculum varies from school to school, core courses often include programming, systems administration, information security, network architecture, databases and ethics. Some programs also allow students to concentrate on a specific area in the field, such as applications development, database management, cybersecurity, web design, video game design, health care informatics, or even robotics and artificial intelligence.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Information Technology Entail?

Online bachelor's degrees in IT typically take four years of full-time study to complete. Courses aim to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to design and implement business information systems. Programs generally cover a broad range of related subjects, from networks and databases to software and websites, and may involve significant hands-on training. Course examples include:

  • IT Principles: This course introduces basic concepts of information technology. Students learn about the structure and purpose of hardware components (computer architecture, memory, networks and interface devices) and software components (operating systems, applications and file systems). Along with looking at individual components, students might analyze how all of these pieces contribute to an organization's overall information system.
  • Network Management: In this course, students are introduced to the responsibilities of a network administrator. Coursework typically covers how to configure network systems to be both efficient and secure using various tools. Students may also learn about Internet protocols such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) in addition to Web services and applications. Hands-on exercises might involve configuring network settings, managing user accounts and designing various kinds of networks.
  • Programming Basics: This course provides students with foundational programming techniques. One can expect to learn basic concepts and terminology, and examine programming paradigms, algorithmic thinking and problem-solving methods. Classes often delve into computer program design, constraints, variables, functions, procedures and more. Lab work typically involves compiling and running applications, interpreting data and troubleshooting.

Additional core classes may include database administration, Web design, software development, operating systems, security and ethics. General education courses in subjects like humanities and arts, English, natural and behavioral sciences, math and history are also typically required along with some electives and, if offered, concentration courses.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Information Technology

Due to the breadth of the industry, numerous career options exist for bachelor's degree graduates. Here is a sampling from the BLS:

  • Network and Computer Systems Administrator: These professionals set up, manage, secure and troubleshoot an organization's computer systems and networks. They may also help management decide when a hardware or software upgrade is necessary and oversee a company's tech-support team. Jobs in this field are estimated to increase 28 percent nationally from 2010 to 2020, faster than average for all occupations (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).
  • Information Security Analyst, Web Developer or Computer Network Architect: These workers use their technical aptitude to help organizations operate effectively in the modern business world. Security analysts safeguard a firm's computer networks and data. Web developers create websites to advertise an business's products or services. Computer network architects plan and design the computer network infrastructure within a company. Information security analysts and network analysts often require prior work experience in a related field. National employment of these professionals is anticipated to grow 22 percent between 2010 and 2020, also faster than average for all occupations (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).
  • Computer Programmer: Computer programmers write code such as C++ and JavaScript to develop applications. They take program designs and translate them into a language that a computer can interpret and execute. Nationwide, employment in this area is expected to rise 12 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as average for all occupations (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Other potential occupations for graduates include computer systems analyst, database administrator and software developer. After completing an online IT bachelor's program, students may also choose to further their education through pursuit of a master's degree.

Technology is constantly evolving, and with this influx of innovations, it's imperative for organizations to hire skilled tech professionals who can help them compete in the marketplace. Online master's degrees in information technology (IT) help prepare students to take on leadership roles in this fast-paced field by giving them the technical know-how, critical thinking abilities, and communication skills they need to catapult the industry forward. Students in these programs typically learn about technology project management, laws that govern the technology field, human resources management, ethical dilemmas that arise in the profession, and growing concerns surrounding privacy and piracy.

What Does a Master's Degree in Information Technology Entail?

Students who enroll in online IT master's programs full-time can generally finish their degree in two years. The curriculum in these programs is designed to prepare students for management challenges in the technology industry, with courses that focus on networking, common technology problems businesses face and solutions to these issues, IT research, and informatics. Examples of course topics include:

  • Technology Project Management: This course covers the fundamental principles and practices involved in managing information projects and programs. Students can expect to learn about management styles found in a high-tech environment, how to work as a team in order to complete a project, how project life cycles affect the way an IT project is handled, and how to create goals for each stage of a project and ensure that those goals are followed through. In order to give students hands-on experience with this material, they may be asked to create a budget and goal plan for a hypothetical project, or write a case study about an actual project to identify the concepts, processes and techniques that were used to complete it.
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in IT: In this course, students learn about the evolution of laws and ethical standards in the IT field. Topics typically include legal and ethical theories, privacy issues, and the protection of intellectual property. In addition, students in this class often learn about different types of computer and cyber crimes, as well as the legal punishments for committing these offenses. Coursework may involve drafting an organizational technology policy for a company or writing a report about legal and ethical challenges companies face when dealing with technology.
  • Network and Internet Security: Students in this course learn the professional concepts needed to design, use and implement a secure computer network. These can include authentication and authorization of network users, the use of firewalls, data communication networks, and wireless network security. In addition, students might look at the various hardware and software components used in database security. To gain hands-on experience with these concepts, students could be required to draft an IT security policy for a company, or work on a network security project.

In addition, students in online master's degree programs in information technology usually choose a specialization to focus their studies on, such as project management, informatics, database technology, or software engineering. Students in these programs may also be required to take a comprehensive examination that covers all of the program's coursework, or write a thesis that focuses on a specific area of research in the field.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Information Technology

There are a number of career possibilities for graduates with an online IT master's degree. One option is network administrator, a profession which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/ooh, 2012), is expected to grow by 28 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020. These professionals perform tasks such as installing and supporting a company's networks, troubleshooting systems when something goes wrong, maintaining the integrity and security of an organization's data, and installing hardware and software updates as needed.

Another occupation that IT graduates might consider is computer and information systems manager. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that between 2010 and 2020, there's expected to be an 18 percent increase in the amount of jobs available to these professionals nationwide (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). Duties typically associated with this managerial position include creating technology goals for a company and ensuring that those goals are met, assessing an organization's technology needs and purchasing appropriate products to meet those needs, hiring technology personnel, creating budgets for a company's technology expenditures, and drafting policies designed to keep an organization's data secure.

Other potential careers for information technology graduates include information technology auditor, information security analyst and database administrator.

Advances in technology are always right around the corner -- and in order for companies to stay on top of these innovations, or develop ones of their own, strong leadership is needed. Online doctoral degree programs in information technology (IT) help to train these organizational leaders, as well as those who advance the field by conducting research and teaching future leaders. Core curriculum in these programs emphasize understanding information technology research, managerial acumen needed to lead an organization's technology efforts, and advanced technical skills and thinking that contribute to innovation in the field.

There are two primary types of information technology degrees at the doctoral level: the Ph.D. and the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). Ph.D. programs are generally more research-intensive, and students learn how to formulate new theories, while DBA programs teach students how to apply these theories in a real-world setting.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Information Technology Entail?

Full-time students enrolled in online doctoral degree programs in information technology can generally expect to finish their degrees in three to seven years, but completion times can vary greatly, especially at the doctoral level. Examples of course topics include:

  • Information Technology Research: This course teaches students about the evolution of research in the information technology and computing field, as well as how to critique current research and conduct their own original studies. Students in this course can expect to cover topics such as logistics and algorithmic analysis, number theory, random optimization, information systems and mobile computing. In addition, students learn the fundamentals they need to conduct original qualitative and quantitative research that will expand the knowledge of the information technology industry. Students may be required to conduct a research study and prepare a scholarly paper for publication, or critique the studies conducted by their peers.
  • Organizational Behavior in Information Technology: Managing people in technology is just as important as managing the technology itself. This course prepares students for these crucial management roles by teaching them how to train, manage and motivate the workers who help move technology innovations forward. Students in this class are taught topics such as organizational theories and research, the social and cultural management issues that arise in a technology company, how to create an organizational culture that breeds productivity and creativity. Students in this course may be required to write a human resources handbook for an organization, or participate in role-playing exercises that highlight some of the challenges technology managers face.
  • Information Technology in the Global Economy: Since technology has allowed companies to do business all over the world, it's important that leaders in the field know how to navigate the cultural aspects of doing business in a global economy. Students in this course learn about global trade policies, the costs and benefits of globalization, leaderships skills needed to manage people from different countries and cultural backgrounds, and the political influences that affect information technology worldwide.

In addition, students enrolled in online information technology doctoral degrees may be able to choose an area of study to focus on, such as informatics or management information systems. Other graduation requirements for this program may include a dissertation that requires students to conduct their own original research and present it to a panel of professors, or a comprehensive examination that demonstrates their knowledge of material taught throughout the program.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Information Technology

Those who earn online doctoral degrees in information technology can pursue a number of careers when they graduate. One option is to become a computer and information systems manager. This is a growing occupation and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/ooh, 2012), jobs for this career are expected to increase by 18 percent between 2010 and 2020. Workers in these jobs handle all of the technology-related activities in an organization, including budgeting for the technology needs of the staff, procuring and installing hardware and software and getting these products updated as needed, creating technology goals for an organization and ensuring that those goals are met, and negotiating with technology vendors to get products at a competitive price.

In addition, graduates with an online IT doctorate may pursue a career as a network and computer systems administrator, which, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, is also a growing profession. In fact, between 2010 and 2020, there's an expected 28 percent increase in jobs for these professionals (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). This job entails problem-solving technical glitches within an organization, training employees how use the technology systems in the workplace, and maintaining security of a company's networks and data.

Those with an online IT doctorate may also pursue careers as college professors, consultants, chief information officers, and technology researchers. Some graduates might also use the knowledge and skills they gain in the program to start their own IT businesses.

"Careers in the growing field of information technology services," Beyond the Numbers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2013, Lauren Csorny, http://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-2/careers-in-growing-field-of-information-technology-services.htm
"Computer and Information Technology Occupations," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/
"Computer and Information Systems Managers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 11, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/computer-and-information-systems-managers.htm
"Computer Support Specialists," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-support-specialists.htm
"Network and Computer Systems Administrators," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Computer-and-Information-Technology/Network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm

Online learning allows me to complete work during feasible hours without sacrificing my other responsibilities, enabling me to be there for my kids and at the same time work towards a better future, a better me. When your world is already in full speed, there is no slowing down. You have to go with the flow, and with online learning, you can. - Maria Hanson 
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