Over the last decade, there has been talk of an impending shortage of nurses. Even in light of the economic downturn, the soaring demand for more educated nurses is expected to continue as baby boomers age and health care coverage expands. For nurses who are entering or are in the field already, this demand presents an excellent opportunity to advance their careers and expand their knowledge.
So what is the logical next step? Often, it is to obtain an advanced degree. Once the decision to pursue higher education has been made, the next question is where to enroll. As online degree programs have increased in popularity over the last few years, many prospective students may wonder about the similarities and differences between online and traditional nursing programs. Before making your decision, consider what type of institution and program will best suit your needs and situation.
Benefits of an online education
Many nurses say the primary reason they chose an online program is because of the convenience and flexibility. Online learning offers students who are trying to balance a family, career, and other commitments the opportunity to earn a degree without sacrificing their other interests and obligations. An online nursing program may also offer a wider variety of degrees than a local university—if a local university is even an option. Especially in rural areas, the distance and time to travel to a brick-and-mortar institution may make this option impractical.
Another benefit of online learning is the asynchronous environment. In an asynchronous learning environment, students can participate at their convenience instead of being limited to participating at the designated location and the time when a class is offered. In the online format, students can generally post their homework and contribute to discussions when it works best for them. This is an especially important benefit to nurses who work shifts that potentially preclude them from attending traditional classes.
Some nurses believe that enrolling in an online program means losing out on the networking and interaction opportunities that occur in a traditional classroom. While it is true that actual face-to-face interaction is limited, nurses still have the opportunity to connect and network with other professionals online. The online setting also allows students to network with classmates and faculty from across the country and potentially around the world. As a result, nurses have the opportunity to hear about what’s happening beyond their local area, as well as benefit from the practical experience and knowledge shared by colleagues in other locations. The ability to connect with professionals from different practice settings and to share experiences and challenges is also cited as a unique feature of online learning. And other student resources, such as career advisement and even tech support, are typically as accessible and readily available via online universities as traditional.
While it may be the solution for some, online learning isn’t for everyone. There are students who want or need a traditional learning environment. For instance, an online classroom lacks the nonverbal cues that visual learners prefer. Some students simply need the face-to-face interaction. Many feel most comfortable having conversations in person and not over the phone or via an online discussion.
In addition, online and traditional nursing programs have different communication styles. On the job, nurses are taught to be succinct in their writing style because of the volume of required documentation in electronic records and because much of their work is done via checklists. Nurses who choose online education participate in a more intensive writing program than traditional education offers, since nearly all of the communication online occurs in written form. Prospective students should keep their personal communication style and preferred learning format in mind when selecting a program.
For both traditional and online nursing programs, practicum or clinical experience is required. However, practicum arrangements vary by degree program as well as by institution. Undergraduate practicums in face-to-face programs are usually arranged by the institution, while undergraduates in online programs typically propose the facility and preceptor. For graduate practicums, the trend for both online and face-to-face programs is for the student to propose their facility and preceptor.
No back row
Class participation is a very different dynamic in an online program versus a traditional program. In a traditional classroom, faculty members typically lecture, and grades are often based on exams and papers rather than on classroom participation. On the other hand, an online program places greater emphasis on participation: everyone participates in discussions by posting their thoughts—there is no back row.
The asynchronous online environment is an unexpected benefit for many students, because it allows students to think about what they want to say before they actually say it. Online students have time to reflect on the discussion, and they are actually more engaged. Traditional students who fear public speaking tend to stay silent in class, whereas an online setting can help build confidence in shy individuals or help those for whom English is a second language compose their thoughts before speaking.
Above all else, quality
Regardless of the delivery method, it is important that students find a quality nursing program. When researching which program or type of institution is best, one of the first things prospective students should check is the accreditation. The program should be accredited by either the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Additionally, the school should also have a Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accreditation if it offers doctoral programs, as Ph.D. programs are not NLNAC- or CCNE-accredited.
Let’s Get Quizzical You’ve already given careful thought to that mother-of-all continuing education questions, “Should I go back to school?” Now that you’ve decided to venture down that path, you’re faced with another pressing question: “Online or traditional nursing education?” As with so many important decisions, answering that question comes with a little self-reflection and consideration. Here’s a short quiz to help you figure out which learning environment is best for you.
How much face-to-face interaction with my professor and classmates do I want or need?
What kind of flexibility does my work and family schedule allow for my educational pursuits?
How do I feel about writing-intensive assignments and interactions?
How do I feel about class participation?
Is my home environment conducive to study?
How comfortable am I using the Internet, e-mail, instant messengers, etc.?
How accessible are the closest brick-and-mortar nursing schools?
Another consideration when choosing a nursing program is to look at the level of faculty preparation and experience. Faculty credentials are important, and faculty members should be teaching in their areas of expertise—as established through both academic preparation and experience. Faculty members should be experts, and they should be certified in their areas of practice.
For an online nursing program in particular, it is important to see how long the institution has been in the business of teaching and offering classes online. Many schools are now offering classes online, but that doesn’t mean that their classes are designed for a truly online experience. To provide a high-quality online nursing program, it is necessary for the school to have expert instructional-design knowledge as well as the technology support that online students need.
Above all, prospective nursing students need to be diligent and research the institution. Talk to an enrollment advisor about the program and the various resources available. Also, reach out to faculty members and current students, as well as alumni who have gone through the program. Ask them questions about their experience, course content, and how the degree has helped them succeed. Prospective students can also check out benchmarks with the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the National Education Association (NEA) to see if the institution they are interested in enrolling in is meeting those benchmarks.
At the end of the day, there is no significant difference between student outcomes for traditional and online nursing programs. Both can provide a rewarding learning experience, but, ultimately, it is up to the student to determine which program and delivery method are best suited to his or her current situation and needs.
No one can say nursing is a stagnant profession. Even freshly minted grads can feel they are scrambling to keep up with new procedures, technologies, treatments, and processes. If you’re a nurse, you might start to wonder what skills you will need to succeed and stay current in the coming years.
There are a few qualities shared by all successful nurses. Being an excellent multitasker, having empathy, and being nearly obsessed with details never failed a nurse. No matter what your specialty, your location, or your aspirations, experts agree that a few skills in your wheelhouse will not only advance your career, but also help you satisfy your goals of being the best nurse for your patients.
“The first thing you have to have if you want to be the best nurse possible is you have to really want to do it,” says Leigh Goldstein, assistant professor of clinical nursing at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. “You really have to want to be a nurse and not just bring people pills and plump pillows. To get there, you have to put in the hours and put in the study. There’s that little thing in you that tells you, ‘This is it,’” says Goldstein. “It makes learning all the other skills easier.”
LaDonna Northington, DNP, RN, BC, professor of nursing and the director of the traditional nursing program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, agrees that nurses need a passion for the job. “This is not for the faint of heart,” she says.
Looking ahead, here are some of the essential skills nurses will need to meet job demands at any career juncture.
Develop Critical Thinking/Critical Reasoning
The best nurse thinks outside the box. Adapting to changing situations, unique patient presentations, unusual medication combinations, and a rotating team takes awareness. Assessing and evaluating the whole picture by using the critical thinking developed in school and on the job is essential to success.
“Nursing is not like working in a bank,” says Goldstein. “It’s not 9 to 5. It’s always a unique set of circumstances. You have to tailor and adjust the care you deliver based on the picture the patient is giving you.”
According to Northington, nothing in nursing is static. Nurses can’t usually just treat one patient issue—they have to determine how the patient’s diagnosis or disease has affected them across the lifespan, she says. And nurses have to consider not just the best choice for the patient and the best option for the nurse right now, but they also have to consider those things in light of the city they are in, the timing, and the resources they have at hand or that are available to them.
Make Friends with Technology
Nursing moves fast, but technological advances are sometimes even faster. While new nurses might lack years of direct patient experience, they often have essential technological familiarity. “Most nurses are probably aware that the world of electronics has just taken over,” says Barbara Vaughn, RN, BSN, BS, CCM, chief nursing officer of Baylor Medical Center in Carrollton, Texas. “The more senior nurses who didn’t grow up in the technology world tend to struggle more than nurses who grew up with that.”
With apps that allow nurses to determine medication dosages and interactions and websites that allow patients access to electronic health records, technology is an integral part of modern nursing. “Technology is changing how we practice and will change how nurses function in the future,” says Vaughn.The benefits are incredible. Instead of having to make the time-consuming drive into the ER when needed for an emergency, a specialist might now be able to save precious minutes by first examining a patient remotely with the help of monitors and even robotic devices. Nurses will have to adapt to this new way of doing things.
Nurses have to practice with technology to gain a fluent understanding, says Vaughn. Vaughn, who is studying for her PhD, says she didn’t grow up with online training as the norm, so when her new classes required online work, she wasn’t prepared. Realizing this could be a hindrance, Vaughn asked newer nurses about how to do things, and she practiced navigating the system until she became better at it.
Whether you are accessing patient records, navigating online requirements for a class, or learning a new medication scanning program, technology will improve your work day and help you take better care of your patients. In the meantime, Vaughn just recommends playing around with the computer when faced with something new. In her own department, Vaughn recalls some nurses who were especially stressed out about learning the new electronic health records system. With training and practice, they excelled. “They were later identified as superusers for their unit,” says Vaughn with a laugh.
Adapt to the Broader Picture
With all these developments comes new and greater responsibility.
“As an inpatient nurse, you used to worry about the 4 to 6 days when the patient was under your care,” says Vaughn. “Now if you are in a hospital based setting, you are going to be more involved in patient population health.” That means an inpatient nurse not only has to get the whole story of what happened before the patient arrived at the hospital, but also think about working with the care team to give specific instructions for when patients get home that will be practical.
“The more specialized medicine gets, the more fragmented health care becomes,” says Northington. Technology and that broad view can help reign that all in—and nurses need to know how the puzzle pieces fit together and where and how patients are receiving care.
“More patients will be followed in nontraditional health care settings,” says Vaughn. “Our world and the world we know is going to change,” says Vaughn of the health care industry. With more patients being followed by health care centers in easily accessed sites like Walmart and Walgreens, telemedicine is going to become more important to understand and to navigate.
Practice Effective Communication
Thirty years ago, communication about patient care was effective, but certainly not at today’s level, says Northington. “We have to communicate,” she says. “You have to ask, ‘What do you know that I don’t know that can help this patient?’ or ‘Are these therapies contradictory?’ Nurses are in that integral place to facilitate that interprofessional education and communication.”
Good communication isn’t always easy. Beth Boynton, RN, MS, author of Successful Nurse Communication, says the most effective communication is based in speaking up and in listening.
Especially in fast-paced and dynamic health care settings, the underlying interpersonal relationships can have a huge impact on how colleagues communicate and relate to each other. Nurses need to not only recognize the dynamics at play, but also learn how to work within the environment.
“We all think this is easy,” says Boynton, “but we have to recognize this is harder than meets the eye. Be patient with the learning curve.” Nurses might be assertive about speaking up for their patients’ needs, but not for their own, explains Boynton. So, as nurses look to the future, they should be mindful of not only fine-tuning their ability to speak up, but also listening to both patients and colleagues in return without judgment so everyone can work towards the best possible outcome.
“The nurse of the future has to stay committed to learning,” says Northington. “Take what the research is saying and use the best practices. Ask the questions like, ‘Why are we doing it that way?’ and ‘What can I do differently that will produce a better outcome?’”
To be the best nurse, you must stay current in the newest developments. Take the time to learn new procedures, but also recognize where your skills need updating. For example, if you know you’ll need to deal with chest tubes, don’t just assume you’ll know what to do when the time comes. Make an active effort to gain current experience.
Develop Mentoring Relationships
Every nurse needs a mentor. It doesn’t matter what your role is, how many years of experience you have, or even how many months you have been practicing. If you want to advance and learn the intangible skills needed to excel in nursing, you need to actively cultivate a mentoring relationship. Nurse mentors are often found at work, through networks, or within professional organizations.
Refine Your Personal Compass
A little bit of a thick skin will do wonders for any career nurse. “You have to defend your patient from everyone and take care of them,” says Goldstein. That means when a physician makes a call you disagree with or you overhear an unfriendly comment, you need to speak up when it matters and let it roll when it doesn’t.
And some of the personal work nurses have to do isn’t easy, including reflecting on and adjusting for any personal feelings or prejudices they have about patients in an open and honest manner. “We need to be able to take care of people no matter what their circumstances or color or what they did to get here,” says Goldstein. “You can’t treat patients differently. You need to take care of them and not make a judgment.”
Prepare for the Unexpected
You never know what your day will bring, so lots of personal reflection, discussions with others in your profession, and cultivating skills can help you when you are faced with something you’ve never had to deal with before.
“I think whether you are starting out as a new nurse or you are a seasoned nurse, nursing care is constantly changing, and being flexible to those changes is paramount,” says Princess Holt, BSN, RN, a nurse in the invasive cardiology department at Baylor Medical Center in Carrollton, Texas. It’s not easy, she says, to constantly adapt to new approaches and new practices, but nurses need to sharpen their focus. “When I get frustrated, I always go back to put myself in the mindset of my patient I am caring for or of my physician who is making this order or of the family I am taking care of to find new ways of looking at it. It grounds me and helps me understand.”
Developing all the coping skills to deal with job stress is a personal approach that nurses will cultivate as they go.
“New nurses don’t always take care of themselves and the emotional baggage you take with you,” says Goldstein. “You have to incorporate those experiences into a coping strategy that you have to develop on your own. Every nurse needs to figure out what they need to do to handle that.” And if you aren’t able to really learn how to cope, nurses must have the skills to either recognize that some kind of career shift is necessary (maybe even just moving from the ER to postpartum, suggests Goldstein) or to be open to hearing it when others recognize it.
Recognize Your Private Life Impacts Your Career
Nurses have to realize their career choice is 24/7. And while you have to balance your life and leave the hospital behind, you also have to somehow adapt to always being a nurse first. Family picnics can turn into a mini diagnosis session, neighbors might ask you to look at a child’s rash, and your private life can impact your job very directly in a way that won’t happen in other professions. “Nurses are held to a higher standard than the average citizen,” says Goldstein.
Learn Where to Learn
Yes, nurses in school learn the hands-on nursing skills like hand hygiene and infection control, says Goldstein, but, like any nursing skill, mastering them takes time.
Some hospitals have new nurse orientation programs that help new nurses acclimate to the setting, but if you don’t have that option, rely on your own observations, ask questions, and take classes to help get you up to speed. When you’re on the job, watch others to see how they incorporate things like patient safety into their routine interactions with patients. And Holt, who has worked in departments from ER to interventional radiology, says moving around builds skills. “I have seen it all,” she says, “and there is still more to see.”
Put It All Together
When nurses consider all the skills they need to succeed, some are easier to gain than others. “You need to understand what goes on behind all the mechanics,” says Northington. “It’s the knowledge behind the skills you need. They can teach nurses things. Nurses have the rest of their lives to learn things. We need nurses who know how to think, to problem solve, [and] who know when they are in over their heads to call for help. The most dangerous nurse is one who doesn’t ask a question.”
And nurses must keep moving forward and adapting even when the pace seems relentless. “We’ve come a long way,” says Northington. “And in 20 years, nursing won’t look like it looks now. Nursing is one of the best careers because it’s always evolving.”
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