Ask Regina Decristofaro, RN,C, BSN, why shes pursuing her MSN in nursing leadership and management, and she answers quickly.
I really value my work as a nurse, but I dont want to be a clinician forever, Decristofaro, who works on the labor and delivery unit at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, said. I want to be working on systems, empowering myself and improving others.
But if you ask her whether she chose to pursue her MSN through Washington, D.C.-based George Washington Universitys online distance education program because she thought it would be easier than attending lectures in a brick-and-mortar classroom setting, she also will have a rapid reply.
If someone were to suggest that, Id wonder just how familiar they might be with grad school of any kind, Decristofaro said.
Decristofaro said she often must flee to a coffee house or a library to find the focus she needs to remain on top of her assignments. And using her planner is a must.
Everything about this the research, the writing, everything takes time, she said. Its the most important thing to remember.
The potential for culture shock among students is real, administrators said.
That potential has prompted Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., to screen potential online students using a lengthy self-assessment, said Kathy Lisak, MS, assistant to associate dean and director of graduate studies in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Lewis University.
Were asking them to see for themselves if they are really ready for this level of self-directed learning, Lisak said.
Across the country, nurses like Decristofaro, who are ready to convert their RNs or BSNs into more advanced degrees, have opted to advance their education less traditionally, jumping into the rapidly expanding world of online nursing study programs.
Yet still, administrators of these online nursing programs concede certain misconceptions arise among students and others in the nursing community and the general public whenever the words online and nursing degree are combined.
Leading the list of these misconceptions, said administrators, is the belief online programs are somehow easier or less demanding than classroom-based college education.
Christine Pintz, RN, PhD, FNP-BC, associate dean for graduate studies at GWU said some students come to her schools online programs expecting the work to be less difficult or the instruction less exacting.
If anything, they quickly find it may, in fact, be harder, Pintz said. It requires a lot of active work by students. In an online program, unlike some classrooms, because it can be very time-consuming and because there is so much writing involved, you cant hide.
Students including Decristofaro and Michaela Lewis, RN, BSN, CPN, CPEN, a second-year student in the DNP program at MUSC, agreed.
Through my experiences, I have found online learning requires a greater degree of independence and self-sufficiency, Lewis said. My online graduate nursing experience has been the most intensive, demanding learning experience that I have encountered.
Many of these programs sprang up in the earliest years of the World Wide Web, in the mid- to late 1990s.
Since then, programs have evolved. Instructors and administrators have adopted new technologies and techniques, including podcasts, live video streaming, blogs, discussion boards and more, to enhance quality and depth of offerings, and to enable some schools to solely offer graduate degree programs online.
The programs have multiplied consistently. From 2007-2013, the number of MSN programs offering distance education options increased from 222 to 335, and the number of DNP programs has expanded from 43 to 221, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
In the same span, the percentage of MSN and DNP programs offering degrees fully online has increased from 9.3% and 13.2%, respectively, in 2007, to 19.9% and 17.9% in 2013, the AACN reported.
It really has become a rich learning environment, perhaps even beyond what you might find in a traditional program, Robin Bissinger, APRN, PhD, NNP-BC, FAAN, associate dean for academics and a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing in Charleston, said.
Those exploring online nursing study also frequently worry the online environment might deprive them of the connections to classmates, advisers, professors and others that can be vital to academic success.
Students and administrators said nothing could be further from the truth.
They said instructors and advisers usually are readily accessible via email or other electronic communication. And the same student services are available to online and traditional students, Lisak said.
Decristofaro and Lewis said classmates also are always willing to talk and share burdens, whether they live nearby and can do so face-to-face or if the interaction must be virtual.
Bissinger said when graduation arrives at MUSC, she often hears stories from online nursing students of connections they have made.
Theyve maybe never met each other before, but students develop a tight sense of community and belonging, to the point where they name their little groups, Bissinger said. She related a story of encountering a group of three students who called themselves The Three Camaros.
I never did find out why, she said.
Administrators said they also have heard some concerns an online degree might not be as readily acceptable to potential employers.
But this notion, they said, is simply far-fetched because employers care far more about what level of education a nurse has attained.
Ive yet to hear of an employer who asked, Did your college have walls? Bissinger said. Theyre looking for degrees and certifications.
Some students, particularly older nurses, might worry the online programs demand too high a proficiency in technology.
This is partially true, Lisak said. Students need to have good basic computer skills.
However, administrators said their schools offer assistance and training at orientation and online to help any student quickly learn to navigate the system and succeed.
We do a lot of training with our students, to help them, especially our older students, get past the fear that says, I cant do this, Bissinger said.