Higher Education in an Online Setting: Reflecting Back on Nursing Education in Spring 2020

Throughout the last few months, COVID-19 and the attempts to slow its spread have drastically altered every aspect of day-to-day life for not only Americans, but across the globe. From working from home measures to restaurants closing down to social distancing and required mask-wearing; no segment of the population has been unaffected. 

Educational institutions, and nursing students and teachers specifically, were hit especially hard by these social changes. While some states are opening back up, others are continuing to practice aggressive social distancing measures. This leaves many colleges and universities in a grey area of deciding for themselves whether or not they should open for the Fall semester. 

Despite this, nursing education has fundamentally changed as a result of COVID-19. Below, Illinois Association of Colleges of Nursing discusses both the negative and positive consequences of this change. 

Difficult Shifts

While, at first glance, changing from in-person to online classes are no more drastic than the measures taken by much of the rest of the population, for nursing students and teachers, this shift was more difficult. 

“Trying to find alternatives to in-person clinical and simulation labs has been the most challenging aspect. Without the ability for hands-on experiences, we’ve adjusted by offering a variety of virtual simulations. These offer good opportunities to develop students’ critical thinking and clinical judgment skills, but they are not a substitute for the psychomotor skills that students need to develop,” said Dr. Michele Poradzisz, Interim Dean, School of Nursing & Health Sciences at Saint Xavier University

“Faculty and student time requirements had to be adjusted,” said Dr. Pam Ferguson, Dean of Nursing at Methodist College. “Faculty had to develop meaningful and rigorous assignments, both didactic and clinical/lab, and evaluate the student responses. Students also had to complete assignments and submit them in a timely manner. These assignments had to challenge students to complete for the appropriate learning outcomes.”

“As a college that has been providing online learning opportunities for students for nearly 20 years, I am grateful that we could take strategies from those online programs and use them to guide our transition to online for our traditionally on campus sequences. Still, there are experiences that are incredibly difficult to replicate via simulation,” explains Dean of Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing, Dr. Judy Neubrander. 

Advantages to Online Learning

Despite the many difficulties that came with shifting to an online learning environment for nursing educators, there have been some positives. 

“Students have a more flexible schedule. Students can, in some cases, work at their own pace. And it is a ‘safe’ environment in that there is no potential to harm an actual person/client with a clinical error. Mistakes can be made without the same implications as compared to working with real people,” said Dr. Tina Decker, Chair of Department of Nursing at Trinity Christian College

“Safety for our students and faculty, which is most important, is a big positive,” said Dr. Tiffany Greer, Director of Nursing Programs and Associate Professor at Olivet Nazarene University. “In addition, faculty and students can experience a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and all students are involved in discussions instead of potentially just a few in a classroom setting.”

Looking Forward

While many schools are unsure of what exactly Fall ‘20 will look like, nursing educators are looking forward and using what they learned during the Spring semester to improve their teaching. Dr. Ferguson explains, “The results of this pandemic and its impact on nursing programs and student learning outcomes may provide information that will assist nursing programs to offer enhanced learning experiences for all course venues. There could be significant revisions to all aspects of nursing education due to what is being learned in this real-life pandemic situation. I am hoping all nursing faculty reflect on ‘lessons learned’ as they move forward in the future.”Dr. Neubrander agrees. “I think that COVID-19 has forced us all to innovate, think creatively, and try new things. It is my belief that ultimately, that will make us all better. At ISU, we’re focused on continuous improvement—documenting what we tried, identifying what works, and then taking that forward with us into the “new normal”. I’m excited about what is ahead for us. I know there will be challenges, but I feel like as a college, we are well-prepared to rise to those challenges and continue to do what we’ve done for the last 100 years: prepare exceptional nurses that go on to improve health in their communities and beyond.”