My journey into the world of online education as a student was a completely new experience for me. I had attended traditional universities to obtain my associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. While serving in the Army Nurse Corps as an ICU nurse, I completed an adult nurse practitioner certification program offered through the military. But years later, having established a successful career working in every area of nursing, I suddenly found myself contemplating the idea of returning to school to obtain my PhD. This bug was put in my ear by one of my best friends, who is also a nurse—because she was thinking of doing the same thing herself. (It is true that misery loves company!)

At this point in my life, this was a big decision. I made a list of all the reasons why I shouldn’t return to school and all the reasons why I should. Initially, the list of “shouldn’ts” outweighed the “shoulds.” I held an established faculty position in a university and had two children who at that time were under the age of 13. And because I lived in an area where there were no nursing schools nearby, the idea of driving at least one to four hours one way to sit in a class did not appeal to me, because it would mean too much time away from my children.
But the more I thought about returning to school, the more it became appealing.  Obtaining my PhD would be a wise career move, a personal achievement and something that no one else in my family had ever accomplished. Then my good friend told me, “You don’t have to leave home, you can do it all online.”

I did some research for myself. The university that I was interested in, Hampton University School of Nursing, had just obtained a grant for the PhD program. So I applied. The admission process was not as difficult as I imagined. The thought of taking graduate admissions exams like the GRE or MAT (Miller Analogies Test) at my age was not fun, but I was accepted into the online PhD program at Hampton—and so was my good friend.

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The Age of E-Learning

Today, online degrees are offered in many areas of interest. Many students opt for online education—also known as distance learning or e-learning—because of its flexibility and low cost. It is a simple way to learn new languages and obtain professional certificates. The World Wide Web has opened the door to a whole new age of e-learning that has provided many of us with a new incentive to learn. And the technology continues to advance, with streaming media, online videos and fast Web servers making it easier than ever to pursue a nursing degree online.  

Compared to the traditional way of earning a degree, students are finding e-learning to be a more enjoyable and lifestyle-friendly option. No longer are you tied to the classroom, rushing to the campus after a long day at work, trying to figure out who can pick up the children and worrying about making dinner. Today you can take courses at your own pace, in your home, even in your pajamas, whenever you are ready. You can work on your courses early in the morning before the family gets up or late at night when all is quiet.

Now that you know the benefits of online degree programs, what else is there to consider?  Let’s look at the economy. It seems that when the economy begins to decline, admissions to colleges and universities increase. This inverse relationship is very understandable. When people’s job security is uncertain, they begin looking toward a new career that will offer more stability and better compensation. Nursing is one such career. For those of us who are already in the nursing profession, staying competitive in a job market where employers are looking for candidates with highly specialized skills means that many of us may need to return to school.

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What to Expect

Congratulations! You’ve just been admitted into an online nursing program. Now what? Based on my own experience as a first-time e-learning student, here is some advice on how to make the most of your online learning experience, what you can realistically expect and what pitfalls to avoid.

Let’s begin. First of all, you will need to have a fast-working computer. It doesn’t have to be the fastest model available, but having a high-speed computer that can do faster uploads and downloads definitely helps.

The next thing you need to know is that many online degree programs will not allow you too much freedom. There is a set time frame for each course and you must complete the course within that allotted time limit. Yes, it is true that you are supposed to be able to work at your own pace, but it will not benefit you or the program if it takes you a whole year to complete one course. Many programs will tell you that you must put X amount of hours a day into the courses to avoid falling behind. But because it is an online program, people tend to procrastinate and then try to hurry up and complete the work within the last month. This is not a good approach. 

When I was admitted to my online PhD program, I thought it would be a breeze. Not so! Online learning is convenient but not always easy. Most of the instructors who teach online have a PhD in their area. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s an easy grade. I had a rude awakening in that regard. Luckily, I realized that I had to knuckle down and do the work before I got too far behind.

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You will have to write papers that must be completed in a timely fashion and mailed to the instructor’s drop box or emailed. Keep in mind that you have to allow the instructor a one- to two-week turnaround time (depending on his/her policy). These waiting periods may keep you from moving ahead in your course as quickly as you had planned. So this is another reason why waiting until the last minute is not productive. 
There are also online chats and/or teleconference calls that you have to attend. For the teleconferences, the instructor will give you a call-in number and you will be in a pool with five to ten other students (depending on how many are in your class), all wanting to speak at the same time. This is where e-learning etiquette comes into play. Be nice, play nice and don’t interrupt. You will get a chance to speak.

For the online chats, you will be given a day and time to sign into your chat. The instructor will ask questions and the class will respond. On your computer screen you will have a blank section where you can type your response. Some chats are “live” and some are not. In some cases, the instructor will pose a question or discussion and the students must respond by a certain date or time. But in a live chat, you must respond immediately. If you tend to be a slow typist, another student may beat you to it and answer the question first. So what do you do? Sometimes I would just erase what I was going to say, but many times I would hit “enter” and send my response anyway. (Brilliant minds think alike!)

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Tech Support

The last thing to remember is that computers are manmade and they will not always work when you want them to. Many times I picked my desktop computer up with the intent of throwing it out the window. Many times I cried, begged, pleaded with the mighty computer to please work. The mighty computer does not care. So if your computer freezes or just stops working, take it to the computer doctor. Having a tech support person(s) who is capable, knowledgeable, reliable, fast and affordable is very important. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find out who will do a good job of getting your computer back in working condition. Students in your university’s computer sciences department may also offer good, free advice on how to fix your computer problems.

And finally, always back up your work, either on a disk, a floppy (old school) or on the hard drive. Computers do crash, lightning does happen and laptops do get stolen. I remember working on the last chapter of my dissertation during a terrific thunderstorm. I usually turn everything electric off and sit in the dark when there is lightning, but I kept thinking, “just one more sentence.” My computer went blank and never came on again, either that day or the next. Worried that my entire dissertation was gone and my life was doomed, I took my machine to the computer doctors and prayed that they could retrieve my lost document that I had worked on for three years. I had to leave my computer with these strangers for two long days, but when I was called to come pick it up and learned that they were able to recover my document, I could have kissed their hands. Instead I just paid them and took my computer home. Lesson learned.

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So would I go through this whole e-learning experience again? Absolutely. I obtained my PhD entirely online. I only had to go down to the university once, to defend my dissertation. I was able to see my children; even though all they usually saw of me was the back of my head, I was there with them.

Is online education for everybody? No. It does take discipline, which I think is one of the hardest traits to have. It would be so easy to blow off doing that paper and go to the beach instead. One thing that I really missed was having face-to-face interaction with my instructors and classmates, not being able to see who I was chatting with, trying to put names with voices. But overall, my journey through the world of e-learning was a truly wonderful experience.

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