Online programs provide opportunities for working nurses
By Anne Dreyfuss
University Public Affairs
After working three back-to-back night shifts from Saturday evening until Tuesday morning every week, Carrie Walker usually sets her alarm for 1 p.m. on Tuesdays. “I treat myself to a manicure to make myself get out of bed,” the 28-year-old said.
As the night-shift nursing administrative coordinator at Chippenham Hospital, Walker is on her feet from 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. rounding on all of the hospital’s units, troubleshooting hospitalwide issues and providing bed assignments for patients who arrive at night. She is often exhausted by Tuesday morning, but after a few hours of sleep and a manicure, she shifts roles from full-time nurse to part-time student.
In September, Walker enrolled in the Virginia Commonwealth University Master of Science Program with a Concentration in Nursing and Administration and Leadership. This fall, the graduate degree switched to an online format, joining a growing body of programs that VCU School of Nursing offers online. For Walker and many other VCU nursing students who work full time, the online learning format provides access to educational opportunities that had previously been unavailable.
“I like classroom education, but that isn’t an option for me right now,” Walker said. “The flexibility of having the majority of the degree’s content online works well with my schedule.”
The master’s degree’s new online format follows a trend of VCU School of Nursing degrees switching from traditional classroom-based curriculums to online delivery modes. In 2012, the school’s Ph.D. program moved to an online format. The Doctor of Nursing Practice, which started in the fall semester of 2015, is also offered online. Students who are enrolled in the online programs will come to campus at the beginning of each semester, usually for two-to-three days, but will complete classes online.
“Offering programs online makes it easier for the nurse who is working in a leadership capacity, but may not yet have a graduate degree, to be able to attend school and still maintain employment,” said Debra Barksdale, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of academic affairs at VCU School of Nursing.
The school’s administration communicates regularly with its students and community partners to develop programs that best fit their needs. “We listen to what our stakeholders want and we try to give them that while still maintaining the quality and tradition of excellence that VCU School of Nursing is known for,” she said.
This fall, the school’s Registered Nurse-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program, which is known as the RN-to-B.S. program, also changed to an online format. The nursing school’s entirely online degree allows registered nurses with a diploma or associate’s degree to earn a bachelor’s degree while maintaining full-time employment.
The School of Nursing’s online learning initiative aligns closely with a universitywide mission to attract the next generation of students with innovative academic programs, outstanding faculty, online opportunities and enhanced career placement without creating an excessive financial burden on the students’ futures.
“The growth of online courses and degree programs is an important university priority,” said Michael Huffman, Ph.D., director of the VCU Office of Continuing and Professional Education and interim executive director of the university’s Office of Online Academic Programs.
For students like Walker, the online program provides a welcome opportunity for career advancement. “I chose to pursue my graduate degree to open more career opportunities,” she said. “I am currently in a leadership position and I want to do everything I can to be the best at my job.”
This semester, Walker is taking three classes online — accounting, evidence-based practice, and health care disparities and reimbursements. She would like to one day move into the role of associate chief nursing officer and she says the courses in which she is currently enrolled are already helping to inform that career. “In the evidence-based practice class we learn how to critique articles, which will be important because nursing is an evidence-driven practice,” she said. “Learning how to critique and analyze the literature will be helpful for implementing best practices down the road.”
After working for the first half of the week, she spends eight hours a day on schoolwork on Wednesdays and Thursdays. “That leaves Fridays for seeing family and friends,” she said. On Saturday it’s back to work at the hospital, but, despite the laborious schedule, Walker is grateful for the opportunities afforded through VCU.
“I have known since I was an undergraduate nursing student that I am a natural leader,” Walker said. “Being able to take the graduate course in nursing administration and leadership online is helping me to achieve the career opportunities I am aiming for.”