Is an Online Nursing Education Program Right for You: Online Options for Obtaining Nursing Degrees Are Burgeoning

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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 consider returning to school but face multiple obstacles.

For travel nurses, online programs provide a valuable alternative to traditional education. They can complete coursework no matter where they are working by simply jumping online. This article explores online learning as a nursing education option. It explains the types of online programs and learning formats available and discusses the factors to consider before applying to and selecting a program.

Online education--seriously?

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. Online seminars help 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 schedule. Say you work swing shifts, making "traditional" class attendance difficult; online learning may be a good choice for you. In addition, your travel assignment might not be long enough for you to complete an education program onsite; with online learning, your credits travel with you.

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. …