Digital media exists at the intersection of technology and creativity. It is an expansive field, crossing professional areas such as web design, multimedia, animation and motion graphics, visual language, film and video, and interactive media. The master’s in digital media blends study of foundational principles of design and media theory with technical instruction in digital technology. This combination teaches students to understand the shifting landscape of how audiences receive and interpret media messages. Armed with this knowledge, graduates can leverage their technical skills to reach audiences in new ways, through art, animation, computer technology, video, and more.
Classification of Master’s Programs in Digital Media
Master’s programs in digital media combine the study of digital arts with instruction in design theory and information technology (e.g. programming and visual language). This combination offers students a broad, yet practical education that can be applied to both specific fields, such as 3D animation, or related professions like digital marketing. Typically, the master’s in digital media is offered through either a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) degree track. Coursework is interdisciplinary, bringing together a curriculum that covers theoretical concepts in the field, as well as provides students with practical skills they can apply to their professional careers. While both degree tracks generally share a similar core curriculum, the Master of Arts tends to have a greater concentration on humanities-based coursework (e.g. digital media ethics; history of digital media; theories of new media). The Master of Science, on the other hand, typically has a greater focus on technical instruction (e.g. interactive design principles; information architecture; technology of dynamic media).
These graduate programs may be offered by varying types of departments depending on the institution, such as media arts and design (Drexel University) or communication (Bellarmine University). Other example programs can be found at the following institutions:
- Georgia Tech University: Master of Science in Digital Media
- University of Central Florida: Master of Arts in Digital Media
- University of Connecticut: Master of Arts in Digital Media and Design
- Sam Houston State University: Master of Arts in Digital Media
- Valparaiso University: Master of Science in Digital Media
The expansive scope of digital media allows students the chance to craft a specialized course of study that is directly applicable to a range of professional areas, including interactive and web design, motion graphics, multimedia (video and film), visual storytelling, and more. While specializations vary by program, common academic concentrations include:
- Animation and modeling (2D/3D)
- Collaborative media design
- Digital media production
- Experience design
- Interactive media design
- Visual language
- Studio art
- Web design
Due to the differing core curricula and distinct academic concentrations offered within master’s in digital media programs, students should be sure to review all degree requirements and learning outcomes before applying to make sure they align with their educational and professional goals.
Online Master’s in Digital Media Programs
For students who want to build their skills in digital media design, while also working a full-time or part-time job or navigating other responsibilities, online master’s in digital media programs can be an efficient and effective option. Online master’s programs in digital media and digital arts give students more flexibility both in terms of location and scheduling, as they allow students to attend classes without commuting to campus. In addition, online programs provide students with additional options for selecting programs as they are not limited to local colleges and universities.
Online master’s in digital media programs can deliver their coursework primarily asynchronously, synchronously, or through a combination of both modes of instruction. Asynchronous instruction allows students to view lectures, course modules, and other materials at any time, as there are no set times students must be online. Typically, students must view lectures, complete readings, and respond to discussion forums on a weekly basis. Students can also interact with professors and classmates through discussion forums and other forms of communication like email, phone, or video conferencing. Programs that use mainly asynchronous instruction are strong options for students who cannot meet at set times during the week for lectures due to their work or family responsibilities. However, they do require that students stay on top of their coursework and manage their time effectively in order to keep up with coursework. Students of online master’s in digital media programs that use asynchronous instruction should bear in mind that some of these programs may have limited synchronous sessions throughout the term, but typically students are informed of these sessions well in advance.
Online master’s in digital media programs that use synchronous instruction require students to meet course instructors and peers at set times every week for lectures and/or to participate in class discussions (typically via video chat or through online forums that students engage in). Synchronous instruction is ideal for students who want the flexibility of online instruction (i.e., not having to commute to campus), but who want to engage with their classmates and professors in a way that is similar to a traditional, campus-based classroom setting. For students who prefer a more structured learning environment or who thrive in settings where they can ask questions and get immediate responses, synchronous instruction may be ideal. However, programs that have live sessions tend to be less flexible than programs that employ mainly asynchronous instruction, so students considering enrolling in an online master’s degree in digital media should take into consideration their other obligations and determine if they can adhere to a set weekly schedule of live online classes. Students should also keep in mind that programs that use synchronous instruction still have asynchronous elements, such as independent readings and online discussion forums that students complete on their own time.
Examples of online master’s in digital media programs include:
- Harvard University Extension School: Master of Liberal Arts, Digital Media Design
- Northeastern University: Online Master of Professional Studies in Digital Media
Curriculum Details for Master’s in Digital Media and Digital Arts Programs
The curriculum in a digital media master’s program is multidisciplinary, drawing theory, design, and technical skill instruction from varying fields such as art, digital technology, and computing. Through seminar- or lecture-based instruction in the classroom, and hands-on experiential learning in the studio, students gain the training necessary to prepare them for leadership positions in media design and creation.
Traditionally a two-year program of study, the digital media master’s curriculum is spread across core competency coursework, elective courses, concentration courses, media projects, and a thesis. During the first academic year, students complete core classes, along with introductory electives related to their area of specialization. Requirements vary by program, but most typically contain between 12 and 16 credit hours of core curriculum. Through these classes, students gain a primary understanding of the concepts and theories that underpin new media design, building skills in areas such as multimedia applications, programming, interactive design, media production (e.g. video, audio, web), and more.
In the second year, students move into their academic concentration and thesis research. Electives, thesis, and concentration studies typically span between 15 and 18 hours of coursework, depending on the program. At this point, many digital media master’s programs introduce project-based work in areas such as data visualization, digital video production, game design, or animation.
Below is a sample list of courses students might take while completing a master’s degree in digital media:
- History and Theory of New Media: This course examines the historical theories and trends within art, media, and computer technology, allowing students to learn about the major contributors to both art and technology innovation, as well as significant developments in each field.
- Multimedia Communication: A review of the theory of design and varying forms of digital media communication (e.g. web, animation, videography), offering insights into how that theory can be applied in real-world media production.
- Studies in Digital Media: This course focuses on emerging technologies and their role in digital media, covering topics such as media authorship, privacy, image manipulation, and copyright.
- Data Visualization Methods: An introduction to how data can be used and displayed in graphics to easily communicate complex information, providing students with real-world exposure to working with various types of data sets (e.g. statistics, user activity) in different visual formats (e.g. graphs, charts, tables).
- User Interface Design: This course examines the theories that underpin interface design, allowing students to experiment with different visual interfaces and design components to learn how they shape and influence user experience.
- Audio Production: In this course, students are introduced to the central concepts and strategic practices of audio production in studio environments, learning practical skills in digital audio engineering, editing, and production workflow.
The table below includes an example curriculum plan for a two-year master’s in digital media program that requires 36 credit hours and a thesis to graduate. As plans of study vary by program, the curriculum below should be used for example purposes only.
Although most digital media programs require 36 credits and two years of study to earn a degree, some– such as the Master of Science in Digital Media at Valparaiso University – might take as few as 15 to 18 months. Additionally, there are non-thesis options available, which usually require two to three additional classes, along with a portfolio or capstone project.
NOTE: Some programs may require a summer internship as part of their graduation requirements.
Master’s in Digital Media versus Master of Fine Arts in Digital Media Programs
In addition to M.A. and M.S. degree tracks, there are also Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs in digital media. Examples include the Master of Fine Arts in Digital Media and Design at the University of Connecticut and Master of Fine Arts in Digital Media Production at the University of Buffalo.
While the M.A./M.S. in Digital Media and MFA in Digital Media are related programs and may share common curriculum components, they are distinctly different graduate degrees. The MFA is a terminal degree program designed for students who wish to become professional digital artists or teachers in the field. It is a personalized academic option for individuals with either an undergraduate education or professional background in digital media or a related field, and tends to focus more on creativity and the intersection of the arts with media technologies and strategies. In an MFA program, students learn to apply their interest and skills in various forms of art to digital media for a variety of purposes and audiences.
The core curriculum of the MFA introduces students to an advanced level of study in contemporary digital media theory, fundamental programming concepts, digital storytelling, art and art theory, information technology, and visual language. Through this review of the foundational principles in digital media, students gain an appreciation of the research methodologies, strategic techniques, and programming approaches used in modern digital media practice, as well as the historical and cultural context surrounding it.
As a terminal degree not unlike the Ph.D., the MFA supports independent research in a specific area of interest, such as animation, web development, or interactive media. By bringing together art and theory, students are able to further their understanding of digital media creation and its relationship to social and cultural artistic practices. Through studio- and classroom-based work, students develop a practical skill set that can be applied to their chosen professional area, whether it is documentary production, computational media, or in academia as a digital media scholar and instructor.
Conversely, the M.A. and M.S. in digital media usually focus on central theories concerning the role of digital media in human communication, while providing students with the design skills needed to communicate messages via digital mediums such as cinema, visual effects, multimedia content, and web design. The core curriculum for an M.A. or M.S. in digital media generally covers broad topics in digital media, including the principles of digital storytelling, information architecture, visual concept development, production management, and dynamic media. From that point, students often apply their elective studies to a specific area of study, such as digital media production, 3D modeling, game design, or studio art. With their more general understanding of how technology and design interact, graduates of M.A. and M.S. programs are prepared to pursue career opportunities throughout the digital media industry.
Students considering a graduate-level education in digital media should carefully review the curriculum options in M.S., M.A., and MFA programs in order to make an informed decision about which avenue best suits their professional and academic needs.
Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in Digital Media
Digital media professionals work in a wide range of fields, from mass media and marketing to computer science and video game design. Whether it is creating animations for a television show, designing a new interactive marketing campaign for a company’s product, or finding new ways to present tutorial videos and educational modules for academic institutions, graduates with an M.A. or M.S. in digital media can use their design skills to find opportunities in diverse industries such as entertainment and film, business, advertising, education, information technology, and more. They might also consider furthering their education by pursuing a doctorate in the field.
Below are several career paths graduates with a master’s in digital media might pursue, depending on their particular specialization:
- Digital Media Director: Digital media directors manage the overall digital marketing strategies for a company, curating shareable content on social media channels, leveraging data analytics and customer segmentation for product marketing, maintaining brand principles across digital platforms, launching digital marketing campaigns, and more.
- Visual Effects Artist: Visual effects artists use computer software to plan, design, and create digital imagery used in television, movies, and other media formats, including animations, graphics, special effects, and other elements that cannot be produced through traditional filming methods.
- Concept Designer: Concept artists build visual concepts for media projects, such as video games and film, using their imagination, artistry, and digital design skills to create new characters and settings or plan out entire scenes.
- Broadcast Designer: Broadcast designers are responsible for the concepts behind and production of graphic designs used in television and internet broadcasts. Their job might include designing logos, creating storyboards, developing web media assets, building motion graphics, and more.
- Digital Marketing Specialist: Digital marketing specialists use their digital and multimedia design expertise to craft compelling visual marketing materials for companies, non-profits, and political organizations. They create videos, infographics, magazine layouts, websites, and other content to educate readers, promote certain products and services, and uphold their organization’s brand and core values.