08/08/2012 10:03 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Online Education Degrees On The Rise: USA Today Analysis (SLIDESHOW)

Four of the country’s largest education schools operate mostly online, according to a USA Today analysis of newly released Department of Education data.

In 2001, the for-profit University of Phoenix awarded 72 education degrees to teachers, administrators and other school personnel; last year, in 2011, it awarded nearly 6,000 degrees -- placing it ahead of every other university. By comparison, Arizona State University -- one of the nation’s largest traditional education schools -- awarded 2,075 degrees, most of them on its Phoenix campus. ASU ranked sixth in USA Today’s list of schools that conferred the most bachelor’s and post-bachelor’s education degrees in 2011.

According to the newspaper’s analysis, traditional colleges still yield the majority of bachelor’s degrees in teaching. Still, online schools like the University of Phoenix and Walden University awarded thousands more master’s degrees than even the top traditional schools.

Online “ed schools” as they’re so called have been heavily scrutinized over the past decade, with many pundits questioning the worth of an online education, particularly in a subject that relies so much on face-to-face interaction, like teaching.

The Hechinger Report notes that online courses are springing up across the country at every level of education, fueled by teachers in pursuit of master’s degrees, or individuals in search of a convenient way to break into a new field.

Meredith Curley, dean of the University of Phoenix College of Education, told USA Today many students return to complete their education after starting families and changing careers. She says the average age of those enrolled is 33, and many work while attending classes. According to the school’s associate dean, Becky Lodewyck, teaching candidates must complete at least 100 hours of field experience, adding that online classes are “incredibly dynamic” and have the potential to hold students more accountable than face-to-face classes.

The Hechinger Report cites a January 2012 study conducted by Eduventures -- a consulting firm that has studied teacher training programs -- that found principals are equally willing to hire candidates who boast degrees from online programs as traditional ones. The firm’s surveys also found new teachers trained online feel just as prepared as their traditionally trained counterparts.

Speaking to the quality of online programs, C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, said they are “all over the place, just like they are with college campus-based programs,” adding, “I don’t think online teacher programs have yet capitalized on the possibilities for providing a superior pathway to teaching.”

Check out the slideshow below for the top 15 schools awarding the most education degrees in 2011, and click on over to USA Today to see the complete list.

Schools Awarding Most Education Degrees