Structure of Online EdD Programs

The course content and sequencing for online EdD programs are generally equivalent to those of campus-based EdD programs. While programs may vary in terms of specific sequencing of courses, in general, students begin the program with classes in the fundamentals of education systems, theory, and administration before progressing to concentration courses, research-intensive classes, and electives.

In the latter half of their program, students generally begin working on their dissertation or a doctoral capstone, which is an intensive research project that represents the culmination of their acquired skills and knowledge in education systems leadership and academic research. Some, but not all, EdD programs also have a practicum component, which gives students the opportunity to apply their doctoral-level training to work in an environment that is relevant to their desired field post-graduation, while benefiting from the guidance of a supervisor. Furthermore, some programs require students to attend on-campus intensives that allow them to meet faculty in-person, interact with program peers, and engage in hands-on learning experiences.

There are several additional factors that students considering an online EdD program should be aware of, as they impact the flexibility of the program, how long the program will take to complete, and if/when students will need to be present for lectures. These factors include:

  • Full-time versus part-time enrollment
  • Curriculum and sequence of courses
  • Cohort model of instruction
  • Synchronous versus asynchronous instruction
  • On-campus sessions or intensives

Full-Time Versus Part-Time Online EdD Programs

EdD programs are typically comprised of 40-70 course credits, which students can generally complete in 3-5 years, depending on whether they pursue a full-time or a part-time course of study, enroll in summer sessions, or transfer previously completed coursework into their EdD program. The majority of EdD programs offer students a part-time study option, and it is a popular route because it allows students to keep working full-time while also taking classes. However, EdD programs that offer full-time study tracks allow individuals to complete their program sooner, which can also be advantageous from a professional development perspective. When deciding between a full-time and a part-time course of study, students should assess their professional obligations and goals, personal responsibilities, and other factors impacting their ability to devote sufficient time to their courses.

The definitions of full-time and part-time can vary across programs, as the number of course credits required to be classified as full-time versus part-time differs from school to school. In addition, it is not uncommon for an online degree program to use a modified academic calendar that might have two 6-week or 8-week sessions/terms per traditional 15-week semester, where students take one or two courses per shorter term. In general, EdD students who are enrolled part-time typically take between 6 and 9 course credits per academic term, while students who are enrolled full-time have a course load of 9 to 12 credits per term. Some online EdD programs are flexible in how long students have to complete the program, so that students can tailor their curriculum timeline to meet their needs. Below is an example of a part-time curriculum plan for an EdD program with an Education Leadership specialization. Prospective students should note that the following course sequence should be used for example purposes only, and that programs tend to vary in terms of their course content, titles, and sequencing.

Example Course Sequence for a Three Year Part-Time Program:

Fall Term
Spring Term
Summer Term
Year 1
Core Courses:
  • Organizational Leadership in Education
  • Theories of Learning

Core Courses:
  • Interdisciplinary Concepts in Education
  • Contemporary Issues in Education

Concentration Courses:
  • Curriculum Design and Implementation
  • Diversity and Multiculturalism in Education
  • Summer Residency

Year 2
Concentration Courses:
  • The Principles of Education Reform
  • Creating Learning Environments

Concentration Courses:
  • Education Program Evaluation and Improvement

Research Courses:
  • Research Methods in Education

Practicum and Dissertation / Capstone:
  • EdD Leadership Practicum
  • Dissertation or Doctoral Capstone Seminar
  • Summer Residency

Year 3
Research and Dissertation / Capstone:
  • Advanced Research Methods and Analysis
  • Independent Work on Dissertation or Doctoral Capstone

Dissertation / Capstone:
  • Independent Work on Dissertation or Doctoral Capstone
  • Dissertation Defense

Course Content for Online EdD Programs

Course content for EdD programs typically covers education systems administration and leadership, education policy and financing, curriculum development, instruction, and other fundamental concepts in the practice and improvement of education. Below is a more detailed breakdown of the types of classes that comprise EdD programs:

15-25 Credits of Core or Foundational Coursework:

Students typically start their program with classes that cover the fundamentals of education systems administration, theories of learning, the economic and political contexts that affect education systems, and other topics that leaders in education should understand in order to be effective across a variety of different academic settings. As illustrated above, sample core courses for EdD programs may include:

  • Organizational Leadership in Education: The major types of education institutions, from primary through post-secondary, and how they operate within larger education systems and society overall. How primary, secondary, and higher education are structured, and the role of teachers and administrators in these systems.
  • Theories of Learning: The fundamental theories of learning for both children and adults. The different types of learning, including visual, reading and writing, computational, kinesthetic, and auditory, and how to support them through educational programs. How human cognition, emotion, and behavior develop throughout the lifespan, and how to create learning environments that support students’ learning and development.
  • Interdisciplinary Concepts in Education: The history of political, economic, and social issues that have impacted public and private education systems. The important social, political, and economic considerations education leaders must make when developing curricula, lobbying for changes in education legislation, addressing campus or school district issues, and creating student support programs.

15-25 Credits of Specialization Coursework:

After completing their core classes, students progress to their concentration courses. These classes vary depending on the student’s specialization. Examples of specializations include Education Administration and Leadership, Curriculum Development and Instruction, Education Policy, and Entrepreneurship in Education. For more information about the courses that typically comprise the specialization portion of an EdD program’s curriculum, please refer to our EdD Specializations section. Depending on their specialization, students may take classes such as the following as part of their concentration:

  • Diversity and Multiculturalism: The importance of diversity and multiculturalism in creating supportive academic environments for students of all ages. The intersection of diversity, multiculturalism, education, politics, and social justice, and the importance of tolerance and diversity awareness in the development of responsible citizens. Current issues in diversity, multiculturalism, and discrimination.
  • The Economics of Education: How public and private educational institutions are funded at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. How education finance is obtained and regulated, and how educational attainment affects the economy, and vice versa.
  • Entrepreneurship in Education: The history of education entrepreneurship and how it has shaped the current education landscape in both the public and private sectors. How problems in the education system have been addressed through innovative solutions, and a discussion of what persisting problems need innovative solutions.

10-15 Credits of Elective Courses:

In addition to core and concentration courses, students of EdD programs may also be required to complete a certain number of elective courses, which can be classes within the same department as their EdD program, or from a different department entirely. Electives allow students to study subjects that may not be directly related to education administration, but which are still relevant to their desired role post-graduation. Examples of elective courses that EdD students may take include:

  • Human Resources Development: How to support the professional development of individuals and teams in a group work setting. How to mentor employees and foster a team-oriented environment in the workplace. Creating trainings and systems of employee support that keep members of a team engaged and productive.
  • Effective Communication and Collaboration: The principles of effective communication across different group environments. How to foster positive and productive team dynamics in academic and work situations.

10-15 Credits of Dissertation or Doctoral Capstone-Focused Courses:

In the latter half of their program, students of EdD programs engage in education research that gives them the opportunity to investigate one or more issues in education. This research typically takes the form of a dissertation, which is a detailed, multi-chapter research document that explores an education problem, and seeks to add to the existing literature on this problem through qualitative and/or quantitative research methods.

EdD programs that require dissertations typically have their students take a dissertation seminar, during which they discuss the research process with peers and a faculty member. After determining their research focus and the scope of their project, students will work largely independently on their dissertation under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Students’ independent work on their dissertation counts for course credit. Some programs require that, upon completion of their dissertation, students also present on or publish their findings through a university journal.

Some programs have students complete a doctoral capstone in the place of a dissertation. A doctoral capstone is a project or portfolio that focuses on developing a solution to an existing problem in education; it is distinct from the dissertation in that it does not follow the multi-chapter format and can take different forms, such as a proposed curriculum plan, a collection of articles, or even a software product that seeks to meet a certain education need. As with programs that have a dissertation requirement, EdD programs with doctoral capstones require students to submit a report detailing their research process, and some may require students to present their project and findings. In general, EdD programs that waive the dissertation requirement and replace it with a doctoral capstone are in the minority.

Regardless of whether their EdD program requires a dissertation or a doctoral capstone, students are expected to engage in academic research that studies the state of education at different levels, how effective existing programs and policies are at serving student populations, and how to improve student services across different academic contexts.

3-5 Credit Practicum Course:

Some EdD programs also require students to complete one or more internships in a setting that is relevant to their desired profession post-graduation. These practicums typically last the length of one term, and are generally arranged through the joint work of a student and a practicum advisor. While some programs may take on most of the work of finding an internship site and supervisor for their students, others may place these responsibilities primarily in the hands of students themselves.

Students generally need to complete a certain number of prerequisite courses before progressing to their practicum. These prerequisite courses typically include core EdD courses as well as practicum seminars that prepare students for their responsibilities during the internships. Well in advance of their internship, students are typically expected to work with their practicum advisor to develop learning objectives that they then focus on in collaboration with their supervisor.

The Cohort Model for Online EdD Programs

The majority of online EdD programs follow a cohort model, which is where a small group of students (typically 15 to 20) have the same program start date and take the core courses together. In general, students within the same cohort progress through all components of a program at the same time, completing their specialization coursework, working on their dissertations, and graduating at roughly the same time.

The cohort model can be valuable in that it gives students a community of fellow students with whom to discuss course concepts, prepare for examinations, and build a network that may prove helpful post-graduation. However, it has the disadvantage of requiring students to apply and enroll at certain times during the year, which can limit students’ flexibility in terms of when they can start their degree program. Some EdD programs offer multiple start dates for different cohorts; for example, some programs have Summer, Spring, and Fall cohorts to give prospective students flexibility in terms of when they apply and enroll. While others may only have one cohort start per year.

One other potential disadvantage of the cohort model is important to consider for students who are not sure if they can complete a program uninterrupted, without taking any terms off due to personal or professional obligations (assuming the student’s program even allows students to stop and start). If a program only has one cohort start per year, certain courses may only be offered during specific terms, which means if a student needs to take a leave of absence, he or she may have to wait to join the next cohort when that class is offered again. This could result in a student being delayed up to an entire year. Students who foresee needing to take a leave of absence during their program should discuss this need with a program advisor before enrolling.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction for Online EdD Programs

Modern technologies have allowed online EdD program coursework to be delivered in an engaging and even interactive way to enhance learning outcomes while also giving students a greater degree of flexibility. The majority of online EdD programs use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous course components.

Asynchronous course content does not require students to log on at specific times, and can be accessed 24/7. Examples of asynchronous course components include course readings, prerecorded lectures (either of live lectures or voice over PowerPoint presentations) and modules, discussion forums, and assignments and self-paced examinations that students can complete on their own time. Synchronous course components are those that require students to log in at a specific time to attend a real-time lecture or discussion, or to complete a certain assignment or examination. Synchronous course components can also include research discussions and guidance, including dissertation seminars and one-on-one work with one’s faculty research mentor.

While the majority of online EdD programs use a combination of the two instruction methods, some program utilize synchronous instruction more than others. classifies a program as using synchronous instruction if it requires students to meet on a weekly basis for live lectures or discussions. All programs that are classified as using synchronous instruction also have asynchronous components. Programs that are classified as asynchronous instruction do not require students to meet on a weekly basis to attend live sessions. For these programs, students may still be required to attend live discussion sessions or live office-hours, but they are not weekly or multiple times per week like a traditional campus-based program. Students should note that programs that use asynchronous instruction still require students to meet deadlines that are usually clearly indicated in course syllabi. Furthermore, programs with asynchronous instruction nevertheless have research and dissertation requirements that require students to be present for live discussions and presentations (e.g. reviewing their dissertation with their research mentor(s), and completing their dissertation defense before a committee).

Each form of instruction has its own advantages and disadvantages. Synchronous instruction is ideal for students who prefer attending an online program that more closely resembles a campus-based program. Students who best learn through live interactions with instructors and classmates, and/or who prefer the ability to directly ask questions during lectures, should strongly consider a program that uses synchronous instruction. However, since students are required to be online at specific times each week, these programs are often less flexible compared to programs that mainly use asynchronous instruction.

The main advantage of asynchronous instruction is flexibility. Students can access course materials (lectures, readings, etc.) anywhere at any time 24-7. There is no requirement to be online at a specific time every week. However, online programs that use asynchronous instruction require an even greater level of self-discipline and organization to not fall behind. One other potential disadvantage of asynchronous instruction is a perceived lack of interaction with classmates and instructors. Most programs that utilize asynchronous instruction are aware of these concerns and use online tools like discussion forums and live online office hours as a way to interact with students. These programs also typically have tools to monitor students’ progress so that students do not fall behind.

When researching online EdD programs, prospective students should ask program staff about the ratio of asynchronous versus synchronous course components in the program, and weigh that ratio against their learning preferences and the flexibility of their schedule.

On-Campus Intensives/Residencies for Online EdD Programs

Some online EdD programs require students to attend one or more on-campus intensives, also known as residencies. These intensives typically span three days to a week in length, and are generally held at the main campus of the program (although sometimes they are held at an off-campus location). EdD residencies provide students with the opportunity to meet course faculty and peers, participate in discussion seminars and dissertation writing workshops, attend networking events, and/or participate in other hands-on activities that enhance their understanding of essential concepts in research, education, and administration leadership. Students should note that programs generally expect students to cover the cost of transportation and lodging for residencies. While the length and content of EdD residencies vary across programs, a sample 3-day residency may look like the following:

  • Day 1: Orientation, Education Leadership Lecture and Discussion
  • Day 2: Research Methods Seminar and Workshop, Networking Event
  • Day 3: Dissertation Writing Workshop, Education Leadership Forum

On, we classify a program as online if it requires three or fewer campus visits per year. Programs that require more than three visits per year are classified as hybrid or campus programs.