Written by Tamara Dolan RN, MSN, OCN
Tamara Dolan RN, MSN, OCNTamara B. Dolan is an experienced informatics and oncology-certified nurse. After graduating from The Pennsylvania State University with a BSN, she went on to receive her MSN with a focus in adult health education from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

On-line nursing education programs, also known as distance education programs, are popular and increasingly accessible.  Distance education, as the name implies, means that faculty and students are geographically separated.  Technology is used to facilitate learning, which takes place asynchronously (where every student participates when able) or synchronously (where every student participate at the same time).  Some programs offer courses only in the classroom setting; some only through distance education.  Some programs offer a hybrid of both.

Although distance education has many advantages, it may not appeal to every student.  How do you know if it’s right for you?

Consider your schedule

Students with demanding schedules and responsibilities may appreciate the flexibility distance education offers.  Rather than attending classes at specific times and in specific locations, distance education schedules tend to be less rigid.

“The biggest advantage for me was the flexibility of the program,” says Pam Mason, RN, MSN, C, who earned her master’s of science in nursing through a distance education program at Walden University.  “When I started in the program, I was still working 7 am to 7 pm three days a week.  I could plan my [coursework] around my work schedule.  It also allowed me to attend my boys’ sporting events without ‘missing’ class.”

“Students with demanding schedules and responsibilities may appreciate the flexibility distance education offers.”

Although they are less rigid, distance education programs are not necessarily less demanding.  “I actually think that I spent more time with an on-line program then if I had gone to a brick and mortar school,” says Mason.

They also require a high level of commitment.  “You have to plan the time to do the work, just like if you were in class,” Mason warns.  “If you cannot be disciplined to do the work, you will fall behind and then never catch up.”

Consider the availability of programs in your geographical area

For Mason, not having to commute was a significant factor in her program selection.  “The option not to have to travel an hour or more for class during the week or on the weekend was very appealing,” she explains.

If you live in a remote setting, move frequently, or are interested in programs not available in close geographical proximity, distance education programs may be a good way to meet your educational goals.

Consider your comfort level with technology

To succeed in a distance education course, you must have the right equipment and a basic proficiency with the technology.  Programs typically list the equipment and skills required, and may even offer classes and support if you think you need tutorials or basic assistance.

Consider other program-specific requirements

Some programs may require students to spend a certain number of hours on campus each year or to attend regional conferences.  If your program of choice requires a clinical component, be sure one can be arranged where you live.  Every program has different requirements.  Know what is expected of you.

Consider how the program complements your learning style

Because the communication methods are different in a distance education setting, students typically must be able to express their opinions, analysis and feedback in writing.  Written communication skills and typing, although needed in any program, may be even more critical for distance learning.

“I thought that I would miss the classroom interaction and relationships that you create in a brick and mortar class,” says Mason.  Thanks to efforts by the faculty to provide timely feedback and to enhance student interaction through the use of a virtual “lounge,” Mason did not. She also benefitted from her classmates’ unique experiences.  “The experiences of the nurse who worked on the Indian reservation, the military hospital, in rural North Carolina and Canada was a perspective that I would not have been able to get locally,” she says.

Not all distance education programs are alike.  These are just some of the factors you should consider.  Be sure to ask specific questions before enrolling in and committing to a program.