A Professor's Guide to Choosing the Best Online Program
When you choose to earn your online nursing degree, the program you enroll in is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. I know from my 33 years of experience teaching, mentoring, and serving nursing students. As part of the team of educators at Maryville who have the pleasure of preparing the next generation of nurses and nurse practitioners, I want to share some insights that we’ve learned to help you find the program that best fits your needs, values, and goals.
The proliferation of online nursing courses and degree programs presents nurses many options for career advancement. But choose wisely.
There are misperceptions about online learning, as well as factors people forget to consider, that can derail the best of intentions. Picking the right online program can be the difference between taking your career to new levels or lamenting lost time and money.
For more than forty years, Maryville University has demonstrated a true expertise in traditional nursing. This expertise has led to successful implementation of online nursing degrees. Maryville has been in the online nursing education space for six years, helping students like you bravely pursue a career in nursing with top-quality education and state-of-the-art training.
We know what makes a quality online nursing program. And more importantly, we know the top considerations that students have when they make their choice.
Here are five of the top factors that can influence your decision.
Start with values.
As a current or aspiring nurse, you are no doubt driven by your values. So it makes sense to earn your education from a school or program that shares your passion for service, health, improvement - or any other values that motivate you.
Many programs make it clear what values and guiding principles inform their mission. Discovering this information typically only requires a simple check of a program's website, but it's important to verify that their values align with your own. By researching your program, you should get a sense from the site about what issues and elements they hold important: Advanced technology? Student success? Job placement? Faculty interaction?
Do the program's values match with those that inform what you seek from an online education? If so, you have a solid foundation in your search.
Check for accreditation of both the school and the program.
To pursue your future in nursing as boldly and confidently as possible, the quality of your education matters. One of the best indicators of program quality is accreditation.
At the institutional level, programs can earn national and regional accreditation. Of the two, regional accreditation is actually more rigorous than national. Credit, coursework, and degrees from regionally accredited schools are more widely accepted than from nationally accredited schools, particularly in career tracks that require licensing. Maryville, for example, is accredited regionally by the Higher Learning Commission, whose mission is to "[serve] the common good by assuring and advancing the quality of higher learning."
In some cases, as with nursing, programmatic accreditation can be just as important as regional accreditation. Programs, departments, or schools within a larger college or university also can be accredited, verifying that they meet the standards of their field for education and relevant student experiences.
An institution must already have regional or national accreditation before its programs, departments, or schools can earn programmatic accreditation from a specialized or programmatic accrediting agency, but programmatic accreditation indicates that the degree programs meet a high standard recognized by the field. Maryville University, for example, earned its accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education after many years of accreditation by its precursor, the National League for Nursing.
Understand the technology required to be successful.
Technology plays an important role in the life of any student pursuing an online education. Make sure you know what types of technology and related resources you will need to complete your coursework, engage with professors and students, and complete assessments.
For example, some programs, like Maryville's, require proctored exams - meaning that students are on video while taking their exams, allowing us to confirm identity and ensure program integrity. This requires students to have access to a webcam and bandwidth speeds that can accommodate live video.
Luckily, most modern computers, laptops, tablets, and other devices are powerful enough to function in an online learning environment and run the requisite software. And on top of that, schools like Maryville offer online technical support to students, so you can get 24/7 assistance whenever you need it.
Ensure that the program offers the flexibility to fit around your life and schedule.
Online learning can be just as rigorous and time-intensive as on-campus classes. In fact, at Maryville, our students earn the same education online as they have on-campus for forty years - only the delivery is different.
With that in mind, it's important to choose a program flexible enough to allow you to give proper attention to your coursework without interfering with your personal or professional obligations.
Online programs are designed to accommodate students who are balancing family, work, and school demands. But not all programs are created equal, especially for a field as tactile as nursing.
When researching programs, be sure to check their structures and requirements. You likely will need to complete an on-site residency or clinical as you work toward your degree, and some online programs may require occasional campus visits, time-specific synchronous learning activities, and other non-flexible components.
But these requirements don't have to interfere with your life. At Maryville, we offer an asynchronous degree that you can complete on your schedule, and we designed the experiential elements of our programs with our students' needs in mind. For example, our students can complete their clinicals locally where it's most convenient for them, so they don't have to worry about traveling or lengthy commutes to pre-approved locations. We also don't require any campus visits - but we do, of course, invite all our graduates who are interested to attend commencement.
Know how the program teaches, and how you learn.
Does your style of learning align with the way your program approaches coursework and instruction? Do you have the self-discipline required to tackle online coursework, engage with classmates and connect with faculty remotely? This can make or break your success as you pursue your nursing education online.
All programs have to balance synchronous learning, which requires online students to participate at the same time as one another, and asynchronous learning, which allows students to work independently at their own pace. This is particularly important to understand when a program includes students from multiple time zones or on different schedules. We've been increasing the number of asynchronous activities at Maryville in response to our students' need for flexible scheduling.
Regardless of a program's mix, you want to ensure that it keeps students engaged with the course content, faculty, and each other. Online programs should facilitate connections among all participants where, when, and how it makes sense.
One way we approach this is with mandatory office hours, which allow faculty to be available for students to call or Skype with questions. Faculty record and post all of these interactions so all students, whether or not they were available during the office hours, can access the information shared. Students should never be more than an instant message or phone call away from classmates and professors, and, just like in a traditional classroom, should not hesitate to make those connections the moment they're needed.
Your next step could be your biggest. Make it your best.
Deciding to advance your nursing career is an admirable goal, and online programs certainly make that goal more accessible for many students. Of course, there are many other details to consider, such as program residency requirements, prerequisites, program length and cost, but taking the time to understand different programs and whether or not they're a good fit for you will give you a better chance for success, in and out of the classroom.
Elizabeth Buck, Ph.D., is Assistant Dean for Nursing and Director of the Online Nursing Program at Maryville University - online.maryville.edu.
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