Boston Globe Career Development and Education - Nurses Go the Distance

Boston Globe Career Development and Education - Nurses Go the Distance

By Natalie Engler

In the past, it wasn’t easy for people like Becky Hall, RN to continue their education. The 47-year-old mother of three works full-time with evening on call hours as an operating room manager in a small hospital in rural Maine. But today, a growing array of distance learning programs in nursing have made it possible for busy professional nurses such as Hall to earn advanced degrees and certificates from the comfort of their homes. A computer-savvy nurse can now get a Web-based RN-to-BSN degree, an RN-(bridge)-to-MSN degree, or an MSN in an array of clinical or non-clinical advanced practice majors.

Hall is currently enrolled in the RN-to-BSN Internet Program at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. It is her second Web-based program. “I love the convenience of online classes,” she says. “If I wake up early in the morning and can’t go back to sleep, I can get online and do some homework. I can even take a test in my pajamas.” More important, she says, she is developing better skills in writing, public speaking, and conflict-resolution – all of which help her in her career.

The University of Maine at Fort Kent launched its online nursing program 10 years ago, says Diana White, RN, MS, assistant professor of nursing. “We have 85 students enrolled in our program and it is growing.” Ann Barker, EdD, RN, professor of nursing and acting chair of the Nursing department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., credits online education with tripling Sacred Heart’s graduate enrollments over the past three years.

Students appreciate online nursing degrees for their flexibility and convenience. They also say the programs allow them to choose a program based on their career goals, rather than proximity. And while some say they miss the collegial atmosphere of an in-person program, others enjoy being part of a community of learners from all over the world. “The online discussion board is like being in a classroom,” says Hall. “Thought-provoking discussions and professional debate often take place.”

Employers like online degrees for the same reasons as students, and often offer tuition reimbursement, says White. “An online degree demonstrates the student’s dedication to education and self-discipline.” Joan Roche, PhD, APRN, BC, director of the Clinical Nurse Leader Program at UMassOnline concurs. She reports that according to a recent survey by Eduventures, more than 62 percent of employers have a favorable attitude toward online instruction and believe the quality of online learning has the same, if not greater, merit than classroom instruction.

Just don’t expect the programs to be a cakewalk. UMassOnline’s new Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) program is “rigorous and requires the same work and effort that an in-person degree does,” says Roche.

Registered Nurse Matt Mendelow, 37 says he was surprised by how challenging his RN-to-BSN program at UMFK is. Papers are often assigned in lieu of classwork and quizzes, he explains, so “you have to really like to write and have decent writing skills to get through this program.” Computer skills are critical too.

Overcoming such challenges, however, helps students develop the technology and technological communication skills that are increasingly valuable in today’s workplace, says Roche. “The informatics aspect is the fasted growing sector in healthcare.”
Hall concedes that taking courses online can be difficult and requires self-direction. But she adds that she is thankful for the opportunity. In fact, she is already looking into getting an online master’s degree.

Date: 05/11/08