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An ongoing challenge for nurses hoping to achieve a higher degree to move into new, more challenging and more lucrative positions - is how to find the time.
In addition to the limited number of hours in a day, nurses' schedules, including 12-hour shifts for many, can make attending time- and date-specific courses at traditional bricks and mortar schools challenging, if not impossible.
Meanwhile, there is growing demand for more highly educated nurses as hospitals focused on the bottom line increasingly seek to hire those who hold a BSN degree or higher.
Add to the mix a shortage of nursing faculty, and it becomes apparent online nursing degree programs and their ability to reach more students in more places will not only help meet these challenges, but also be a driver of nursing education in the 21st century.
"Because of recent research that demonstrated patient outcomes are better when there are more highly educated nurses on staff, state boards of nursing, healthcare systems and the nursing profession all are urging nurses to attain a minimum of a BSN degree," said Claudia D. Horton, PhD, RN, dean and professor at the School of Nursing, Graceland University, Independence, MO.
"In addition, hospitals across the country are hiring only BSN graduates in an effort to achieve Magnet status, and because our current economy allows them to do so," she said.
Past & Future
While it may seem pursuing a degree in the comfort of your home is something new, made possible only by the internet.
Correspondence courses continued as a means of distance education (and, in fact, still exist today), but have been augmented by online courses.
In reality, distance learning can be traced to the 1700s and an advertisement in the Boston Gazette seeking students to learn shorthand through weekly lessons sent to their homes.
And although initially viewed with a certain amount of skepticism, today online nursing degree programs are common and widely accepted.
Indeed, Ken Hartman, PhD, president of Drexel eLearning Inc., the online education subsidiary of Drexel University, Philadelphia, said that school has seen a significant increase in interest in all of its online programs (which number about 100) over the past 7 years, even though Drexel has had online programs going back more than 20 years.
Added Graceland's Horton: "Online nursing programs are invaluable, especially to those nurses across the country that work full time, have family responsibilities and/or live in rural areas with little access to traditional education."
Graceland offered one of the first nationally accredited distance nursing education programs (RN-to-BSN) in the nation beginning in the mid-1980s, Horton noted.
"It was known as directed independent study at that time and thousands of student papers flooded the postal system and our desks," she recalled. "We went on to offer an MSN program in 1997 and, most recently, a post-graduate DNP in 2011." All of the programs are offered online.
Kenny Robinson, MA, RN, is a nurse team leader for MJHS Home Care in the New York City metropolitan area.
He earned his graduate master's degree in nursing education online through Mercy College and with help from his employer, which he said is a strong proponent of online education.
"There was a time when I thought I would never have the education I have now," he said recently. He does, he said, due to three things: "That I took the leap when it was offered, that it was offered by my company and that it was online."
The flexibility of online learning is a key benefit for adult learners, Robinson said, noting students can study and often attend nursing classes on their own schedule. Weather problems are also a non-issue, he added.
Janice Quay, BSN, RN, is an administrative nursing supervisor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and currently enrolled in Drexel's Master's in Nursing Leadership and Health Systems Management program.
Eighteen years ago, she was enrolled in a traditional master's program but had to drop out due to illness. She had long had the goal of returning to nursing school, but life continued to get in the way.
Six children later, and 46 years old, Quay found a way to achieve her dreams through the more flexible route online education offers.
"It's been nothing but positive," she said.
She has been particularly impressed with her instructors and their ready availability, and the ability to get to know students from around the country.
"It's really neat knowing I'm in class with people from California, Utah, and the different health issues that are affecting those areas," she said.
Cynthia Hickman, MEd, MSN, BSN, RN, BC-CVN, CM, is a cardiology case manager and nurse educator at a Texas hospital and a PhD candidate in Health Services at Walden University, an online institution. She received her MSN in 2009 from Walden as well.
Hickman decided to pursue her advanced degree to strengthen her teaching skills and help prepare nurses using both real-world and scholarly training. Her goal is to open preventive health centers in her community to help people avoid the need for hospitalization.
"I was introduced to the concept by a friend of mine who was pursuing her degree as well," said Hickman. After doing some additional research and talking to others, she selected a program and got started.
A major impetus for her desire to pursue a degree online was her need to balance not only her nursing career, but also her role as a personal caregiver to her mother.
"My mom is 91, and I just wanted to continue my education, continue taking care of her and be available to her. The more I thought about it, I thought it might be a good fit. I could study at any time of the day or night and still be home with her to take care of her needs."
In addition, noted Hickman, online education eliminated the need to deal with limited parking space and the commute back and forth to school. "It just made sense," she said.
Few Barriers, Many Benefits
A successful and satisfied student is a powerful force in terms of influencing interest in online education, Drexel's Hartman says, especially among nurses who work very closely together. "We definitely benefit from word of mouth," he says.
Although many nurses have found the online environment perfectly suited to their needs, Hickman recommends others considering this option do a self-assessment to determine if it's right for them.
"You have to have discipline. You have to have the ability to travel on your own through your coursework. You have to have good communication skills, both verbally and online."
And, importantly, she adds, "You have to know how to type. I think people sometimes don't think about that. Being technologically savvy is very important - it will hinder you if you don't have that," she said.
Horton also acknowledged that, while she is a strong proponent of online education, there are limitations to online learning in nursing.
"Prelicensure students need hands-on experiences supervised by expert faculty," she said.
"Students need to learn the culture of the healthcare system and the nursing profession in a variety of learning venues. There is significant value in bringing students together to learn a new language, new skills and a new way of being."
But, said Robinson, "If you're a motivated learner I can't think of anything that would hold you back from completing your work online as opposed to in the classroom."
In exploring options, Hickman advises asking a lot of questions based on your self-assessment and the things that are important to you. Ask about the type of equipment or resources you will need. Ask about educational resources. For those who aren't ready to jump right into a full-blown program online, she suggests testing the waters with a single course.
Partnering up with another nurse to attend classes together can also be a good way to guarantee success, Hartman added. "To go into a program with a buddy, I think, is hugely advantageous."
He recommends immediately connecting with someone else in the course to forge relationships. "The water is warm," he says. "It's time to jump in the pool."
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a frequent contributor to ADVANCE.