Fostering Student Success and Addressing Disparities in an Online Learning Environment

While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the routines of many people’s lives, nursing students and faculty are no different. While many of America’s workers and students were able to switch to learning and working completely remotely, for those whose daily schedules require in-person tasks — like nursing students — adjusting to the new normal has been less seamless. Despite this, both students and faculty in nursing higher education have been able to adapt to a new learning environment while delivering high quality instruction and learning. 

Challenges of Online Learning in Higher Education

With the switch from in-person learning to online learning, nursing students and professors have experienced a variety of issues. Because of the extra layer of separation that occurs with online learning, ensuring that students are keeping up and understanding can, at times, pose a hardship for faculty. 

Luckily, many professors have found ways to adapt and keep students on track.

“Our faculty are trying to reach out to students earlier than normal about attendance issues, poor course grades, or anything that would be a sign of a disengaged student,” said Tiffany Greer, Associate Dean of the School of Nursing at Olivet Nazarene University. “The psychological stressors have increased with a year full of health, political, and social unrest. For students also trying to earn a nursing degree, many reach a tipping point more quickly than they normally would. So it is important that professors keep a close eye on their students.” 

Beyond the disconnect that can happen with online learning, the technology itself can also cause challenges. Across the board, IACN member institutions indicated that they moved to address this issue quickly.

“We have provided hot spots and computers to students so that no one is left unable to access class,” said Terri Weaver, dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing. “For our undergraduate students, we have also initiated a student success program that will support them socially, psychologically, as well as strengthen skills they will need to be successful in the most challenging courses. It also includes a high level of mentorship. Many students have taken advantage of this program and it appears that it will be highly successful.”

Benefits of Online Learning in Higher Education

Despite the issues that remote learning has caused for nursing students and educators, there have also been a number of benefits. 

“Our biggest priority during the transition was to maintain the same level of quality education. The switch to online learning has helped us realize that some aspects of our curriculum can be taught online and that we can still maintain the level of quality and engagement that we expect in our program. It has also helped us realize that nursing is a discipline that requires students to engage directly with faculty and patients to learn at the highest level,” said Judy Neubrander, Dean at Illinois State University

“Online learning has created flexibility for both students and faculty. Online, students have the ability to go back and review specific sections of content–something they have expressed has been very valuable to them,” explains Cindy Hudson, Dean at North Park University. “Even after the pandemic has passed, I think there are strategies we have implemented for COVID that should remain. For example, virtual office hours to meet with students for a ‘face-to-face’ experience. We will continue to encourage students to use online tools like Teams or Zoom for group learning, studying, projects, and to stay connected. These are great resources post-COVID for single parents, or students with other responsibilities.”

Online learning also gives students and faculty options for either synchronous or asynchronous participation.  Some content is best presented asynchronously, while other content requires synchronous presentation with opportunities for immediate feedback. According to Diane Salvador, Executive Director of Nursing and Health Sciences at Elmhurst University, having options to use both can meet student learning needs and enhance learning.  

Sandie Soldwisch, President of the Saint Anthony College of Nursing, added that “Remote learning has sparked critical and creative thinking in the faculty – and good things are emerging because of that thinking!” 

To ensure quality in the delivery of curricula online, IACN member institutions utilize the Guidelines for Evaluation of Distance Education (On-Line Learning) developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), of which the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is a member. Dr. Joan Libner, Chair of the Department of Nursing and Health at Benedictine University, notes the HLC, which accredits IACN colleges and universities, recently announced a collaboration with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) to provide access to resources for HLC member schools. Per the HLC website, these resources include webinars supporting “online pedagogy, equitable and inclusive course design, instructional technology for student engagement, and leadership in online education.”

Remote Learning: A New Environment for Nursing Education 

At the Illinois Association of Colleges of Nursing, we understand that the switch to online learning has been difficult, but that it has also allowed for a level of both flexibility and creativity by both students and faculty. Membership stresses that a variety of approaches is needed to make sure that students from different backgrounds feel included and have the opportunity to be successful. If you are a student or educator struggling with the new online environment, please reach out to us for some helpful tips. You can find our contact information here.

Lastly, we leave you with this advice about remote learning from Dr. Tina Decker, Chair of the Department of Nursing at Trinity Christian College, that will allow you to set yourself up for success: 

“First, create an environment where you can commit to learning, and set up a schedule and space that allows you to set yourself up for success. Online learning often requires more self-accountability and so it has the opportunity to create professional growth.”