PA: Online nursing programs prove staying power; Duquesne to debut forensic nursing

  1. Online nursing programs prove their staying power
    Duquesne to debut program with forensic nursing focus
    Lynne Glover

    UPTOWN -- When it comes to higher education, online degrees are here to stay, said Mary de Chesnay, dean of Duquesne University's school of nursing.
    "There's been a lot of discussion in higher ed regarding whether Internet learning is appropriate and whether you can maintain the same high standards as you can for traditional programs. I think it's here to stay," she said.

    This fall, Duquesne will offer a new master of science program focusing on forensic nursing. The new online program prepares graduates to practice in a number of areas in forensics, including sexual assault nurse, nurse coroner, nurse investigator and legal nurse consultant among others.
    "There are not many programs like it in the country and none of them are online," said Ms. de Chesnay. Enrollment in the online master's program -- which stemmed from a certificate program offered by The Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne -- will be capped at a dozen.

    Duquesne's Ph.D. program in nursing has been offered exclusively online since 1996, Ms. de Chesnay said. It graduated its first online Ph.D. student in December 2000. The university currently has 42 doctoral candidates enrolled in the program.
    "We have a student in Japan that would not be able to do this degree if it were not for our program," said Ms. de Chesnay.
    And there has never been the need for educated nurses than there is right now. The federal government wants two-thirds of the nation's nurses to hold bachelor's degrees by 2010. Currently, only about a third have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to a report by the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice.

    In Pennsylvania, the vacancy rate for registered nurse positions rose to 11.1 percent last year, an increase over the previous year's 10 percent rate. The study by The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania showed that the increase in the turnover rate was even more significant, with the 2001 turnover rate of 13.1 percent compared to 9.1 percent in 2000.
    The University of Pittsburgh's School of Nursing is trying to address the nursing shortage while meeting the needs of working registered nurses with its RN Options Program. About 150 students are enrolled in the program that offers "Web-supported" courses.
    "The courses have a face-to-face classroom component and online component," said Teresa Sakraida, program coordinator. Students meet in workshop settings between three and five times per term.

    About 75 percent of Pitt nursing courses this fall will be Web supported, with the goal being 100 percent by summer 2003.
    "We've not elected to go totally online," said Ms. Sakraida. "Nursing is very much an interpersonal, relational kind of profession. Many times you want to have interaction and conversation regarding many issues facing nursing today."
    Slippery Rock University in Butler County is attracting more nontraditional students into nursing programs by offering Web-based distance education.

    It has been two years since Slippery Rock quit offering its nursing program in the traditional classroom setting to become a totally online program. The program is designed for busy R.N.s who have completed a community college or diploma program in nursing.
    "Within a year of offering courses online, we had trouble filling traditional classes," recalled Ramona Nelson, professor of nursing at Slippery Rock. The faculty decision to go online paid off: Nursing school admissions rocketed 300 percent in 2000 when Slippery Rock converted to distance education.
    Today, the average age of Slippery Rock nursing students is 34.
    "Our students have multiple responsibilities," Ms. Nelson said. "Most of them are working, many times they have children, and they're involved in their local communities and are working mandatory overtime, so fitting in a college education was difficult."

    Gayle Barrett of Meadville, Crawford County, is one of those nontraditional students. Ms. Barrett, 55, graduated from Slippery Rock's nursing program in May.
    "I chose Slippery Rock because it had the only R.N. bachelor's degree in the area," she said. When Ms. Barrett started the program in 1993, it offered a traditional classroom learning environment. But Ms. Barrett had no reservations when the school introduced online learning classes in 1997.
    "It's wonderful," she said. "Instead of traveling an hour to and from school and wasting that time, I could stay home, turn on the computer and study those two hours."
    MS. GLOVER may be contacted at
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