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Can Students Interact and Stay Engaged in an Online Master’s in Nursing Program?

When students consider enrolling in an online master’s program, one of their fears is probably that they will not be as engaged as they would be if they were in a classroom. This is especially true if they are studying a hands-on subject like nursing, as it naturally demands a great deal of personal interaction.

To answer students’ questions about the level of engagement and interaction they could receive in an online master’s in nursing program, we recently spoke with Deborah Rastinehad, the assistant dean in the School of Nursing at Excelsior College. Based out of New York, Excelsior is an accredited distance-learning intuition and the world’s largest educator of nurses, with more than 17,000 students enrolled in its School of Nursing.

Q: Some people wonder how well a hands-on profession like nursing can translate to an online platform. In your experience, do online master’s students miss out on the hands-on training they could receive in a classroom?
A: I think that in this regard there’s a stereotype that nurses are always next to the bedside, and I think that the hands-on [nature of a course] is really dependent on the program and the student population. For our particular program, it’s an admissions criteria that they are already registered nurses, so they’ve already had those clinical, hands-on components. By and large, our population is looking for leadership positions. They want career advancement or their job now has requirements where they have to advance their degree. Because of that, our nurses are, by and large, already working, so that hands-on component is already there.

Q: How do online master’s programs ensure nurses are engaged in their curriculum?
A: Most of our students are already employed. They already have jobs and they are incorporating their new knowledge and skills set right into their work-related environment. Within our master’s degree program, the final course that students need to take is a capstone course. With that, they have to do an actual project. Most of our students will do this project, which is a hands-on experience, within the organizations in which they work. We have three specializations: nursing education, nursing informatics and an administrative track called clinical systems management. So a typical project might be that they are engaged in teaching if they are in the nursing education program. In informatics, they might be involved with the planning or the roll-out of converting from a paper-based to an electronic health record – those kinds of technology initiatives. Within the administrative track, they are probably looking at new models of nursing care delivery, which would be very administratively driven. [The online programs] do have that level of interactive components.

Within our courses, if you are in an administrative [program], you’re going to have to learn to perform budgets right in Excel. If you’re in an informatics [program], you’re going to learn how to build databases within Access. If you’re in nursing education, you are going to be involved in curriculum development. Those are very grounded experiences that are integrated right within our courses, but directly applicable to what they’re doing in real time.

Q: With these types of projects and courses, do you find online nursing students are as engaged in their master’s programs as they would be if they took classes on campus?
A: I would say that they are absolutely as engaged or even more engaged. I don’t think that there’s any guarantee when a student goes to a brick-and-mortar institution that because they are sitting in classrooms they are participating or being engaged. They could be just showing up. With online [programs], because of the online venue, students have high-stakes participation. Participation accounts for a large part of their grades, so we require that our students engage at least twice per week with the students and their instructor. The other thing that goes on – and this is similar to a brick-and-mortar institution – is an attendance module. Each week on our online campuses, you will know that they will probably have some type of attendance taking. There are triggers if a student is absent and they will get emails or prompts to get engaged and stay engaged early, and if they are having issues they can contact their instructor. There are quite a few behind-the-scenes strategies that go on to keep the student engaged.

Q: Are certain nurses more likely to succeed in an online master’s in nursing program than others? Do excellent online students share certain personal characteristics?
A: Regardless of whether it’s nursing or not, there are characteristic and skills that I believe students who are more successful online exhibit. One of these is time-management skills. They have to be disciplined enough to engage in the course. It is very easy when it’s a structured environment to drive your car to a brick and mortar. It’s a little bit more self-disciplined to know that during the week you need to get [online] at least twice. Most online programs are asynchronous in nature, meaning you need to get online twice a week, but no one’s telling you what time you need to get online. You don’t have to be online on a Monday from 7 to 10, but you do need to be on at least twice a week and be able to respond to your classmates and to the instructor. There takes a level of discipline for that self-regulation.

There’s also, I think, a learning style preference. That involves the pedagogy of learning, whether they do better with having the instructor teach at them, or whether they’re constructivists by nature. That pedagogy is aligned with adult learning, and our students are adults. What that means is if they are constructivists, they are discovery learners. They are problem-based learners so they are going to learn from each other as well as bring their experiences to the situations that we have in class. So that is another trait or characteristic that would make someone successful. If they don’t have that learning style preference, then online learning may not be the best choice for them.