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Online Instructor: Career Definition, Employment Outlook, and Education Requirements

Explore the career requirements for online instructors. Get the facts about education options, responsibilities, and career growth to help determine if this is the career for you.

What Is an Online Instructor?

Online instructors typically are postsecondary school teachers who teach classes over the Internet. They share many of the same duties as a traditional in-person instructor, but connect to their students through email, message boards, video chatting, and other online communications tools. These instructors grade work, respond to student queries, and ensure a productive learning environment online by creating discussions around course materials.

The chart below has more information about job duties, career outlook and education requirements.

Degree Required Doctoral degree; master's degree sometimes acceptable
Education Field of Study Education, psychology, physics or any other field of interest
Licensure or Certification Some colleges and universities require postsecondary instructors to have a license or certification in their specific field; Ex: Nursing license for nursing instructors
Key Responsibilities Educate students in an online environment on different topics in your specialized field, grade papers, discuss topics with students on classroom forums, and create syllabi and classroom curricula
Job Growth (2018-2028) 11%* (for postsecondary instructors)
Median Annual Wage (2018) $78,470* (for postsecondary instructors)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Are My Online Instructor Duties?

You'll be employed by colleges, universities, enrichment centers, trade and vocational schools, corporate entities or the government. You can teach a wide variety of subjects for academic, vocational and leisure purposes using interactive multimedia tools. You create lesson plans that are tailored to the online environment, instruct students through online lectures, lead class discussions, answer questions, grade student work and receive student assignments via Internet teaching platforms.

As an online instructor, you will likely be a part-time, non-tenured member of an institution's faculty. Online instruction allows you to teach at a college that may not be local to you. Some colleges use cohort programs (where students enter a program together and take all courses together), so you may anticipate teaching the same students for more than one course.

What Is the Employment Outlook for this Career?

Since online instructors can teach a number of areas and grade levels, salaries and employment projections vary. However, since online instructors often are employed by postsecondary institutions, you can base your salaries around other postsecondary educator averages. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment for professors, including online instructors, is expected to grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028.

This rate is faster than the average projected rate for all occupations during that time period. The BLS states that many full-time professors do not like using online formats because it is time-consuming and complex. Because of this, job prospects should be especially good for part-time, non-tenured teachers like online instructors.

What Education and Training Do I Need?

You will be required to have varying amounts of education, depending on where and what you teach. Universities and other 4-year institutions prefer you to already have or be working toward a doctoral degree in your subject area. Community colleges or similar 2-year colleges would like you to have a master's degree or professional certification in your area of expertise. Bachelor's degrees are accepted by some schools, but aren't preferred.

Trade and vocational schools tend to require you to have solid working knowledge and professional experience in the subject being taught, such as automotive repair or nail technology. In all cases, the prospective online instructor must be comfortable working with computers and web-based environments. In fact, some colleges teach professional certificate programs for online instruction. The SREB Online Teachers website offers other online instruction specialty course information.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Because becoming a postsecondary instructor requires a doctoral or master's degree, there are plenty of alternative careers available. Teaching in a traditional setting at a university, community college, or technical school will allow you to use the same skills in a different setting, teaching students first-hand rather than over the computer.

Alternatively, depending on your field of study, you may find work as a professional in your field. These fields can include anthropology, economics, or sociology, all of which could offer salaries comparable to those of online instructors.

Another option is pursuing work as an administrator rather than an instructor. These professionals often work within specific aspects of a college or technical school, including admissions or the registrar's office. Administrators ensure a college runs smoothly, often handling a combination of college business and student involvement.