Few people have had as close a seat to the evolution of online nursing education as Christell Bray, PhD, RN, FNT-BC, FAANP.
Bray, who now serves as coordinator of the family nurse practitioner specialty area of practice at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, has been involved with every aspect of “distance education” at TAMUCC, helping untold numbers of nursing students, who otherwise may have been unable to land more advanced degrees, take the next steps in their nursing journeys.
As she’s helped them take those steps, Bray has gained more than just a feel for the student behaviors paving the way for success in online BSN and MSN programs.
Q: What are some common mistakes you see nursing students make when entering distance learning programs?
A: One that jumps out immediately is: You think if you’re in an online program, it’s something you can do at 1 or 2 a.m., alone, and in your spare time. I make sure to put in all my syllabi that this is actually harder, and will take more time. The tradeoff, though, is that it is more flexible. Self-discipline is very important. You have to be self-disciplined. You have to make sure you’re setting the time and place where you are doing your work, every day. But in distance education, you also have another element to consider: The interest in developing a community online. Students tell me they actually get to know faculty and classmates better than they do in face-to-face classes, because they can – they can email or message them anytime – and because they really need to. There’s a real interaction with their classmates.
Q: What does this interaction look like?
A: There are a variety of ways of interacting, and it may depend on the course. Within every course, there’s going to be a Blackboard foundation. There are going to be discussion boards. In my classes, there will be ones called “Messages from Dr. Bray,” and “Students Helping Students,” as well as weekly discussion questions. Students are required to post in there at least twice a week. We’ll have chat sessions, and for some topics that are easier to discuss live, we’ll have WebX meetings.
And students will also be placed in smaller groups for discussions and work among themselves.
Q: How does the group study work?
A: This is one of the most important aspects of anything we teach. They usually don’t like the group work, but in the real world, they will work in groups. It’s how so much of the work in nursing actually gets done. There’s so much to it. We give them a question, a problem that needs to be solved, like, “What medication interactions might be causing the problem we’re seeing with this patient?” They’ll need to get the answer, then write a group paper on their solution using evidence-based research that is viable, and is real. From there, the group – usually about six students – comes up with the way it will solve the problem. It mimics real life. They come up with their team rules, they form the guidelines and hold each other to them. They have to come up the answers to some sticky questions, like, “What do you do if a member of your team is slacking off, and isn’t participating as much as maybe they should, or at least as much as some of the others?” They learn what so many nurses know: If you can’t work as a team, the patients ultimately are the ones who suffer.
Q: What are some things nursing students can do to position themselves to succeed in distance learning?
A: It begins with time management. Make sure you’re giving yourself enough time. And don’t wait. Adjust what you’re doing now so you can set your schedule. But be willing to seek out support. I live in Nacogdoches (about 350 miles from Corpus Christi). We have students in our programs from all over the state of Texas, even as far as Amarillo (about 655 miles from Corpus Christi). And their pass rates and level of achievement are equal to, and in some cases better, than students in face-to-face programs. We have a plethora of resources at our disposal and very creative faculty using them. And we have so many ways for students to interact and connect. Be willing to reach out and connect with faculty and classmates. They’re all resources.