Teresa Heithaus MSN, RN-BC has been a nurse for more than 30 years. She attained her MSN from the University of Phoenix distance learning program in 2007. She now coordinates and develops online nursing educational endeavors for Staten Island University Hospital, and also maintains the blog Staff Development: Behind the Firewall, at http://nsdbehindthefirewall.blogspot.com/. She is also a distance learning mentor for the Thomas Edison State College School of Nursing.
If you’re planning on going back to school for your nursing degree, you may be considering a distance learning option. You have probably heard pitches for the programs like, "Designed for busy adults," and "Can be done in one’s spare time.’ For some unfamiliar with distance learning, these advertisements can lead to the misconception that an online degree can be easily bought rather than earned. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I earned my MSN degree and two certifications from distance learning programs and have mentored for an online nursing program as well. In addition to challenging me, my online learning experiences have enhanced a variety of my skills including time management, team building, leadership, writing, communication, networking and computer literacy. I was able to make the most of my online program, in part because of the unique benefits this option offers.
As long as you have a good Internet connection, online education can happen anytime and anywhere. In fact, as part of my program, I had the opportunity to connect with other students from around the world. I participated in a global learning experience that helped me understand health care issues impacting a wide array of regions.
In general, grading for online programs is based on a mix of participation, written assignments and tests. Participation and attendance are measured by the number of times you contribute to online discussions via posting to a message board or forum. The quality, thoughtfulness, source citation, and word count are all taken into consideration during the grading process. Participation is essential to passing. You don’t have the option of remaining silent. A lack of posting shows a glaring absence in class.
Adapting to an online program can seem overwhelming at first, but with a bit of time, commitment, and common sense, you will be able to not only survive, but will learn to balance your work, school and home lives.
Below is a breakdown of the tips for success I learned while completing my online degree:
Prepare Yourself Mentally and Emotionally
- Make sure your immediate family is supportive of your decision to return to school because without their support it will be difficult to progress through the program.
- If you plan to expedite or fast track your education, be prepared to have little to no free time.
- Avoid false expectations.
- Adapting to new experiences takes time; do not get discouraged.
- If you can, enroll in a program with a colleague - you will be able to support, encourage, and bounce ideas off each other.
- Realize that online learning is not for everyone.
Avoid Computer problems
- Start school with a reliable computer that has quality anti-virus software installed, and become familiar with your computer’s settings, USB ports etc.
- Find out how to contact your school’s tech support.
- Learn the functionality of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and any other necessary programs. Some schools even offer tutorials.
- Always make a backup of your work.
- Create a reliable file naming and organization system for yourself.
- Make sure you’re saving your work periodically - don’t rely on auto save.
Manage Your Time
- Take the time to carefully review the course syllabus and class requirements.
- Create a calendar that includes personal, work and school obligations, marking any potential conflicts (i.e. weddings, vacations, project deadlines, etc.).
- Avoid taking on additional responsibilities that may impact your available free time.
- Be flexible.
- Avoid procrastinating and try to complete your work as early as possible. You can always record your favorite TV show.
- Create a routine.
- Prioritize your time, spending the most time on assignments that are worth the most.
Do Well in Class
- Read directions for all assignments thoroughly.
- Read the class rubric, or grading outline, carefully before starting any discussion post or assignment, using it as a guide for completing your work. Make sure to note due dates and the penalties for turning assignments in late.
- Answer discussion questions completely.
- If you need to use sources for your work, make sure you know the preferred method of citation for the class and how to use it.
- Make sure you’re not losing points on things like formatting, citations, and/or the quality of the sources you’re using.
- Read all announcements and e-mails from your teacher or class facilitator.
Prevent Anger, Angst and/or Anxiety
- If you’re working and going to school, notify your manager/employer in case you need to adjust your work schedule.
- Much anger, angst and anxiety can be reduced by good time management.
- Contact your advisor or mentor early in the semester to discuss any potential concerns.
- Learn when to turn off the computer and take a breather.
- When working on a team, resist the urge to make up for the shortcomings of other team members.
- Make sure your computer is reliable.
- Take time off between classes, enjoy life, and stay engaged with your family and friends.
Keith Carlson RN, BSN has been a nurse for over 14 years, with experience in home care, public health, community health and case management. He is one of the co-founders of Rives Carlson Coaching (http://rivescarlsoncoaching.com), a health and wellness coaching company, and he maintains the blog, Digital Doorway (http://digitaldoorway.blogspot.com), where he shares information and experiences related to the nursing field.
In the days before the advent of the Internet, some "mail-order" college diplomas were available, but this type of education was often looked upon as questionable. Today, online educational opportunities abound, from associates to master’s degrees and beyond. Millions of people can now access education from the comfort of their homes. For single parents and those who need to continue working while attending school, online education has opened doors that were previously decidedly closed.
When can earning an online nursing degree work?
When online education first came of age, new technologies related to the Internet were still in their infancy, and online learning was not a terribly inspiring experience. But, those early years now seem like the days before the discovery of fire.
In my opinion, the best online nursing degree options are so-called "bridge programs." These bridge programs include online RN to BSN, RN to MSN, LPN to RN, EMT to RN, and other courses that provide students, who already have some health care background, an opportunity for upward career mobility and professional advancement.
Didactic learning, lectures and the communication of essential information lend themselves well to online learning. Using PowerPoint and video conferencing, students and instructors can leverage those technologies in the students’ favor.
In addition, students can interact in a variety of ways with one another and their instructors. And, as the Internet continues to grow and new technologies are developed, there is no doubt that online learning will become increasingly popular and fulfilling for those who choose this option.
When is it better to pursue a traditional nursing program?
While it may be possible to earn an initial nursing degree through an online program, for those with little to no health care experience, traditional "brick and mortar" schooling may be best. Camaraderie, support and face-to-face contact with both professors and fellow students are important aspects of initial nursing education. I couldn’t have imagined doing without that support during the first years of my nursing education.
Clinical rotations and skills development are still best accomplished in environments where students interact with and support one another in real-world environments. A scenario in which a nursing student "attends" online lectures and takes part in individual clinical experiences on his or her own (without the benefit of having an instructor and other students on hand), is simply not as rich or instructive as it could be.
During my days in nursing school in the mid-1990s, the lively conversations over cups of coffee and midday lunches were crucial to my enjoyment of the experience and the development of deep bonds between many of the students.
Other considerations: the "digital divide"
In order to take part in online education one must have access to a reliable computer that meets the technological requirements of the course being taken-not everyone has that kind of access. This "digital divide" is an important socioeconomic issue to bear in mind. In addition, some students have a low level of comfort with computers and unfamiliar software environments. These students may be left behind while others jump ahead in this increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN is a nurse writer and educator with over 25 years of experience. She has been certified in five different clinical specialties including critical care and emergency nursing. Starting as an associate degree registered nurse, she continued her schooling in traditional and distance-learning settings to obtain a BSN, MSN, and PhD in nursing while working full-time and raising a family. Lorry teaches nursing in a variety of settings including webinars and online nursing courses.
Online education programs have come a long way over the last few years. Many nurses choose an online program for the flexibility it affords. However, there are several considerations that should be made before investing in an online program to reach your next degree goal.
First, determine what type of degree you are seeking. If this is pre-licensure training to sit for a nursing licensure exam you will need clinical practice in addition to online coursework. How you obtain clinical practice connected with the online program is an important consideration. Review the clinical requirements for the online programs to determine if you will be able to meet them in your current situation. If you already possess a nursing license and are seeking a BSN or advanced degree, you will most likely not need a practice setting or can use your current workplace.
Besides cost, number of credit hours, and timing of courses, you should research the time commitment needed for various online programs. Although these programs are flexible, you will still need to be able to concentrate on the material within specific timeframes. Make a schedule of your current weekly commitments and see where you will be able to carve out time to devote to reading, writing and forum posting for your courses.
Also, research what equipment you will need. This information should be on the college website. All programs will require that you have a stable internet connection and a working computer. However, some programs require specific equipment such as a video camera. You will need to calculate equipment costs into your financial planning for a new degree.
Online nursing courses usually have reading requirements and weekly discussion forums. The discussions take the place of classroom discussions and students are graded on how the course content is analyzed and applied to nursing situations in the posts. Students have requirements for the number and type of posts made to these forums. Some courses will also have quizzes, exams or papers to submit. A course syllabus provides the framework for the course and specifics on how to obtain a good grade.
Online nursing programs are not ’easier’ than classroom programs. In fact, some nurses find the need for analysis and writing skills to be a challenge. Since there is little verbal interaction in online class work, students must coherently and cohesively write out their thoughts on the study materials. It is helpful to have good keyboarding skills.
Many nurses have found online nursing programs to be just the ticket to help them advance their nursing knowledge and obtain degrees while staying close to home. With careful planning you can reach your education goals through an online program.