Adding Options to your Nursing Program

Sharon J. Tanner, EdD, RN
Chief Executive Officer, National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission

This column provides information on accreditation for nursing programs of all types. Readers may submit questions to the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission. General questions of interest to a wide audience will be addressed in this column while more specific questions or those requiring confidentiality will be answered directly.

QIn a recent faculty meeting, we decided to add an online program to our current full-time traditional and week-end RN-BSN nursing programs.  We believe this new program will enhance access for practicing nurses in our area who are unable to attend the current afternoon or week-end classes that we have been offering for several years.  We have conducted a survey at the area healthcare facilities and have identified more than 200 nurses with diplomas or associate degrees that are interested in earning a baccalaureate degree.  The number one reason they cited for not continuing their education was the schedule of classes available and the conflict with their working schedules.  Most, but not all, of our faculty are eager to try this new delivery method for our program.  We have some who still say that the students need to be in the classroom, but I think we can win them over if we have a strategic plan and a positive implementation process.  We are aware of colleges that have been successful with online offerings and others who are discouraged by high attrition rates. What have other programs done to successfully implement online education?  Also, how do we obtain accreditation for the new program?  Do we seek initial accreditation of the new program?

AYou are off to a good start; it sounds as if you have done the necessary research to determine the need for a mobility program that is available via an alternative modality.  Since NLNAC currently accredits your (generic) BSN program with the two current RN-BSN options, it is not necessary for you to seek initial accreditation for the new online option.  The new online option is simply an alternative delivery modality to your currently accredited BSN program. In Policy #14 Reporting Substantive Changes and Policy #15 Distance Education, you will find information related to reporting the new (online) option as a planned substantive change. It is important that you report this substantive change in accordance with the policy requirements.  In this particular type of change, you will need to pay special attention to the Criterion within each Accreditation Standard that addresses distance education or alternative modalities.  Since you do not currently offer any fully online nursing courses, the new option will be reviewed in terms of elements such as the availability of technology and technology support for the faculty teaching the courses as well as the students enrolled in the online courses.  In addition, you should address the professional development needs of the faculty such that they are provided the information they need about best practices in online education to be successful in developing new courses or converting their current courses to the online format.  You should consider questions such as the following:  What are the plans for assisting the faculty to learn about current trends in online education?  Who will assist the faculty with preparing their courses?  Who will provide and support the hardware and software so that the courses are available, particularly during hours that the University is closed?  Are there currently online offerings in other disciplines within your governing organization?  If so, what can be learned from those experiences such that the nursing courses will be delivered in the most effective manner?

A critical element for student success that must be considered is whether or not the enrolling students are “tech savvy.”  For newly-enrolled students, you will want to consider the orientation of the students to the courses.  You may wish to have an orientation “built” within the first courses, or you may wish to initiate some sort of self-paced orientation to online classes that is required for students prior to enrolling in the courses.  With mobility programs, we see a wide range of skill level in terms of previous technology usage and experience with online education.  Students who have previously taken online courses in their educational programs may adapt easily to the online teaching environment; however, if students have had limited exposure to programming in this modality, they may struggle with the technical aspects of access to the course materials and learning resources.  Please remember that students are often eager to enroll in online courses because they think it will be easier for them or will not require the same number of hours for reading or class preparation that a traditional course requires.  You will need to be clear in the public/student information about the courses.  As an example, if a specific type of software is required to access and work within the course, you will need to provide that information upfront so that students can be prepared in advance of enrollment. Also, you will want to provide the students with reasonable expectations in terms of requirements with multiple checkpoints throughout the course to assess learning.

Dialogue with your student support services staff is essential while you are still in the planning stages.  How will you ensure that students have access to these services in the online environment?  One of the major benefits of taking online versus on-ground classes is that the student does not have to come to campus to access services.  So, please involve these departments in your planning as you develop the new program option.

You should also be aware that institutions that offer online programs are under increased scrutiny by regulatory agencies to ensure that no student aid funds are misused. So, you will be expected to have a mechanism for verifying student identification for those students enrolled in the online courses. Again, your colleagues in other disciplines offering online courses and those in the IT department will be able to assist you in ensuring that your online courses meet any federal or state requirements and best practices related to distance education.

Online education has certainly progressed over the past decade.  You may want to network with other nursing programs in your area and region to see what courses are currently offered.  The virtual aspects of many of the new learning resources for online education offer the faculty member creative means to fully engage the students on any topic.  For those among your faculty who are still reluctant to move away from the traditional face-to-face classes, you will have to expose them to the multiple types of interaction that can occur in today’s technology rich environment.  Perhaps you can be a guest in some of the best online courses that you see at other institutions as a way to demonstrate the level and type of engagement we see in the courses being offered currently that promote best practices.  There are a number of national and regional conferences for those teaching in the distance learning environment that might also encourage them to try something new.

Most importantly, don’t forget that you want to build in systematic assessment of the online courses.  Accreditation requires that you assess and evaluate the effectiveness of the method through the success of the students in achieving the competencies and learning outcomes as well as their satisfaction with the courses and the faculty.  Comparability of outcomes is key to success if you plan to continue with the traditional face-to-face courses as a complementary method of offering the RN-BSN program.

The professional staff at NLNAC are available to speak with you if you have questions or need advice about moving forward.  They will also assist you with the preparation and submission of the substantive change report, which must be submitted to NLNAC no later than four (4) months prior to the initiation of the new program option.  Best wishes with your new adventure in online learning!

This is a non-final version of an article published in final form in the NURSE EDUCATOR Journal. March/April 2012 Vol.37, No.2, pp. 1-2 http://journals.lww.com/nurseeducatoronline/toc/2012/03000