The decision to go back to college to complete a degree or get an advanced degree is never made lightly. Many nurses wonder how—or even if—a degree will benefit them, and which degree will enable them to meet their aspirations. Others are considering returning to school but face multiple obstacles. In this article, we explore online learning as a nursing education option. We explain the types of online programs and learning formats available and discuss the factors to consider before applying to and selecting a program.
The question of whether online classes or degrees are “as good” as classroom-based ones has been the topic of several well-designed research studies. A meta-analysis that examined 86 experimental and quasi-experimental studies concluded that in nearly two-thirds of the studies, students who took distance education courses outperformed their classroom counterparts. So online programs weren’t just as good as traditional educational programs; they were better. In traditional educational settings, the typical nursing course format involves a professor lecturing at the front of the room. Although technological tools may be used in the classroom, students invariably become passive recipients of information, writing feverishly to try to capture every word the professor utters. One author notes that “the traditional academic model has not harnessed and integrated the extraordinary technological resources we are creating, which have the capacity to transform teaching and learning.” In some colleges and universities that offer nursing courses online, lectures have been eliminated or replaced with interactive seminars. Some online nursing programs, for example, provide interactive seminars to students in all nursing courses. Seminars have multiple uses, including providing a platform for faculty to present information not yet available in a textbook, addressing topics that students have expressed an interest in, or answering questions on course content. Use of online seminars helps learners make connections among readings, online discussion, and written assignments. The instructor promotes these connections by clarifying concepts or helping learners think more deeply about a particular issue. Through this process, learners don’t simply memorize material for the sake of later “regurgitating” it on an exam. Instead, they must demonstrate mastery of the material, which faculty evaluates based on student posts on interactive discussion boards and written papers. In short, distance education provides a deeper cognitive exercise.
Are online courses the right choice for you?
The most important prerequisite for success with online nursing education is for the learner to be motivated internally. The nursing profession seeks people who generally are internally motivated, as observed in a typical shift where we don’t need a supervisor standing over us telling us “it’s time to take vitals” or “you need to administer 8 P.M. medications now.” Nurses have to know on their own what needs to be done and organize their own time effectively to do it. Another important consideration is your work/home schedule. Say you work swing shifts or must often work mandatory overtime, making “traditional” class attendance difficult; online learning may be a good choice for you. The same goes if you have multiple family responsibilities and can allocate “school time” between 9 and 11 P.M. If you’re considering online courses, first assess your computer skills. If you aren’t sure how to turn on a computer, you’re likely to have difficulty starting an online program. Basic computer literacy, including e-mail, word processing programs such as Microsoft Word, and the ability to navigate the Internet are prerequisites to online learning.
Choosing the right online program
Before applying to or enrolling in an online program, do your homework. Start by preparing a list of questions relevant to your decision. Here are some important things to consider:
- Regional accreditation. The United States has six regional accrediting bodies that assess colleges and universities to ensure academic quality. Some schools may indicate they are“licensed” by a particular state as a private school, yet don’t have regional accreditation.But regional accreditation is essential; generally, it’s the deciding factor in whether your degree will be accepted by employers or other colleges or universities.
- Length of time to degree completion. Knowing how long it will take to get your degree helps you predict when you’ll finish. We’d all like to complete a baccalaureate or master’s degree in no time at all, but you should never sacrifice learning for speed. Find out how many courses are required and the length of each course. Some programs have terms that last only a few weeks, while others are similar to a typical college semester.
- Prior learning or transfer credit. Some colleges and universities establish arbitrary “expiration dates” on college credits, prohibiting transfer of course credits obtained more than5 or 10 years ago. Before you commit to enrolling,the school should commit in writing which courses from your transcripts they’ll accept toward degree completion and those you must take at their school.
- Taking multiple courses simultaneously. Academic work in an online program can be intense,so try to determine in advance if the course load is manageable. Some programs are“lock-step,” meaning you must finish one course before you can take the second, and each course builds on the previous one. You may be allowed to take just one course at a time; conversely, some programs let you take more than one course simultaneously. Both approaches affect your total time to degree com-pletion. We suggest starting with just one course. While everyone wants to finish quickly,you don’t want to find out by the end of the second week that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Nor do you want to wake up one morning realizing you have 15 chapters to read from three different books in three different courses by the end of the week, and not nearly enough time to do it. Begin with one course to see how it meshes with your time management, work, and family life.
- Technology requirements. Most schools generally require that students have MS Windows–compatible computers, Internet access, and Microsoft Word and PowerPoint software. Find out about additional hardware or software requirements,such as a Web cam, microphone,or scanner.
- Practicum/internship. The best nursing programs include practicum requirements in courses, giving students opportunities to socialize into a new nursing role and serving as a laboratory to apply new knowledge to real world situations. Practicum experiences can lead to job opportunities for many students.
Does the online program offer support services?
Support services are an important component of an online learning environment during—and even after—you complete your program. Colleges and universities can offer a wide range of support services.At the very least, insist on basic services, such as orientation and counselors. (See Must-have support services by clicking on the pdf icon above.)
Opening doors online
When considering online university and program options, be sure to self-assess your learning style and professional education aspirations. Then gather information about several schools’ curricula, degree requirements, and support services to help choose the degree and university that best matches your own needs. Online learning has opened doors for many students who otherwise couldn’t have attended college because of life’s multiple competing demands.With expansion and improvements in online education, Web-based education programs are enabling nurses to become more competitive in the health care workplace and prepare for new or expanded roles. Sheila Burke is dean of the School of Nursing at Kaplan Higher Education. Bobbie Whitworth is chair of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program at Kaplan University.