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The Future of Online Nursing Education

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covid 19-educational institution-online learning-pandemic

COVID-19 left educational institutions scrambling to implement comprehensive and high-quality online learning programs, and nursing education was no different. Three experts weight in.


Dr. Mary Lou Sole

Dean and Endowed Chair, College of Nursing, University of Central Florida


Dr. Josh Hamilton

Dean and Graduate Program Director, Rasmussen University


Matt Cooper

Founder, Skillshare

What does the future of online nursing education look like to you?

Mary Lou Sole: Online education will continue to grow as more students are looking for flexible options to attain a higher education. The pandemic has shown us the importance of having high-quality online offerings. Emerging technologies are being integrated with more traditional online education to engage the student and immerse them in the content area. We will also see more adaptive and flexible learning options that allow the student to complete coursework based on a personalized timetable.

Josh Hamilton: Online learners are going to be looking for affordable, flexible online options that accommodate their needs as working professionals. We’re going to see more schools doing what Rasmussen has always done when it comes to our post-licensure and graduate degrees: emphasizing learning and becoming proficient over marking the passage of time in a classroom or electronic learning environment. We don’t expect students to spend time in activities and assignments that don’t feel relevant to the work they’re doing today – and the work they want to do when they graduate! Nursing education must become more authentic and contemporaneous for us to keep pace.

Is technology good enough to give nursing students the hands-on experience they need when pursuing a degree online?

JH: Online learning was initially focused on didactic content. Some skill training can be integrated into online courses with the appropriate technology and software. For example, online health assessment courses integrate simulated technology to enhance learning of assessment skills. Specifically, such technology brings into the classroom the finer “soft” skills of interacting with people to gain a far more holistic assessment and establish a relationship of trust between client and nurse. There are several creative and effective means of evaluating student skills. Students can learn skills through practice and submitting videoclips of performance for evaluation. Simulated programs also provide an opportunity to learn and demonstrate critical thinking skills. However, I believe that most programs need time integrated into the clinical setting for real-life experience. Much can be demonstrated through simulation; however, application in the clinical setting is essential. Distance education offerings that are well-designed bring this aspect of education into the scope of online learning.

What is the most common challenge students face when trying to pursue an online education, and how can this be avoided?

Matt Cooper: A challenge our students face is not knowing where to start and finding the confidence to take that first step. We find that new students start off full of enthusiasm and chomping at the bit to dive in, but it can also feel a bit overwhelming for them. There’s also a lot more self-discipline required with online learning. We’ve all heard about the struggles that kids and their parents have faced with virtual schooling throughout the pandemic, and it’s not that different for adults trying to stay focused on a class when there are endless distractions getting in the way. This then puts the onus on us to ensure a student’s experience is a highly personalized one, and that there’s a fair amount of structure offered. It was this realization that led us to launch learning paths, which take a student from A to Z on a topic.

MLS: Students may mistakenly believe that online education is easier than traditional means of delivery. Students must possess a significant level of self-determination to adequately plan, organize, and execute assignment, course, and program completion successfully. A major difference between distance and local education is the importance of learning from each other and engaging in courses with classmates and the instructor in two-way communication. Distance learning involves far less sitting and passive listening. It is interactive to the point of being required for success. The online student cannot sit in the back row of the class and merely listen. To be successful, participation is demanded. The students must immerse themselves in learning.

What is the largest challenge you’ve faced as an expert in this industry?

MC: The in-person learning experience is unique and its benefits are innumerable. Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to leverage the long list of benefits of online learning and then closing the gaps in some of the other areas that traditionally favor the in-person model. To do this, we can make the content as engaging as possible, ensuring our teachers weave in authentic personal stories and even get comfortable with showing their mistakes. We can also provide mechanisms to receive feedback and input from teachers and other students, and we can re-create the energy of an in-person classroom with live sessions and Q&As. We’re exploring all of these things through our primary membership experience, as well as in our cohort-based Chroma Courses.

What are the three biggest benefits of online learning when someone is looking to pursue a higher education in nursing?

MLS: The first is flexibility of scheduling to allow for a balance in life with work and family. Also, access to a wide range of programs not limited by geography, and learner equity. High-quality course designs, which incorporate multiple methods of information dissemination and knowledge assessment, give a far more balanced classroom than the traditional lecture/test approach to education.

JH: My perspective on this is shaped by the compelling stories of our students and recent graduates. They have told us that they chose our online programs because they were flexible and allowed them to continue to work as nurses while they were pursuing an advanced degree. Many of our learners have returned to tell us that our authentic assessments were a reflection of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that have helped them be successful in the workplace. Our emphasis on competence (not time-in-task or letter grades) and the collaborative interactions with faculty are critical in this development. Thanks to online learning, schools finally can deliver a rigorous, enriching, and challenging program that feels contemporary and relevant — for a fair price.

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