FLEXIBLE AND CONVENIENT, online degree programs let you further your education without the hassle of commuting or attending traditional classes. In this article, I'll tell you how to choose an online program, lay the groundwork for success, and make the most of each online class.
Choosing your route
Make sure the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education at http://www.aacn.nche.edu/Accreditation or by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission at http://www.nlnac.org. Accreditation ensures that you're working toward a degree in a high-quality educational program.
Examine your budget. Know what courses will cost and how you'll finance them up front, so you don't start a program that you can't finish. Take advantage of tuition reimbursement offered by your employer or ask your adviser to help you explore scholarships, student loans, or other financial aid such as the federal Pell Grant.
Do a gut check. If you need frequent advice from instructors, a traditional classroom may be better for you. But if you're a self-directed learner, online education can be a real treat. Here are some concrete ways to prepare for your first online course.
Preparation smooths the way
"Tour" your online program. Just as you'd visit a college campus and talk with professors, you need to check out an online school. Contact the admissions adviser and learn the school's policies by reading its handbooks, which may be available online. Investigate the degree requirements and study the curriculum. Find out if any courses need to be taken in sequence. Ask how often classes are taught and if you can take more than one class at a time.
Your computer is the key. You'll access your classroom through your computer, so make sure it's up to speed. Find out your school's hardware and software requirements so you can decide if you need to invest in a new computer or program. Most online nursing programs require students to have access to Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Microsoft's Web site has tutorials on these programs. Make sure you've mastered basic computer skills and have a rudimentary understanding of these programs before your first class.
Have a backup plan in case you have computer problems. Locate alternative computer access; for example, at your local library, your job, a copy center, or a friend's home.
Next, determine the Internet access that will work best for you. You can use dial-up access, but a faster connection, such as DSL, FIOS, or cable modem service, may be worth the extra cost.
Check out your school's computer resources, including writing resources and tutorials. Common resources include online writing labs, tutor reviews, and plagiarism checkers.
Also familiarize yourself with your school's online library, which will help you access many databases. If you prefer to hit the books, go to a public or medical library.
Find out your school's editorial style. Most nursing programs use American Psychological Association (APA) style. If you aren't familiar with APA style, invest in the fifth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. And consider getting APA software templates to save time when formatting papers or references. Check them out at http://apastyle.apa.org.
Before you enroll, consider how you'll juggle all your responsibilities. Keep a log for about a week to see how you spend your time now. If family responsibilities are likely to infringe on study time, look for ways to cope. If you have small children, for example, you may be able to work while they nap or read assignments outside while they play. Try setting up a small play area next to your computer. With crayons, paper, and other "work" materials, your child can mimic you as you work at the kitchen table.
Thinking ahead and planning your time will help you once classes begin. Resolving these issues when you're facing deadlines is more difficult.
Do you need a laptop?
A laptop will let you study outside while you watch your kids' ball games or simply enjoy some fresh air.
Road map to success
Once you're registered for your first class, learn about it as quickly as possible. If your nursing program offers an in-class or on-site orientation, you should attend. If not, contact your admissions adviser to get access to the course materials before the class begins.
When you're ready to go online, what you see may look like a different language. (See Learning the lingo.) Most online classes meet in a main "discussion forum" or "newsgroup." Be familiar with these online sites; here you'll respond to discussion questions and interact with other students. Many programs require a minimum number of postings each week in a particular area, such as your main classroom or a team forum or newsgroup.
Once you have access to course materials, print the syllabus and other important materials, read them thoroughly, and place them in a binder. If a list of assignment due dates isn't in the syllabus, develop one and keep it in the front of your binder. Organization is a key to success.
On the first day of class, most instructors will post a welcome message and some may require you to post a biography. Read your instructor's and classmates' biographies, then make connections by e-mail or classroom posting. Ask questions not covered in the syllabus; other students may be wondering the same thing.
Once you're full throttle into your class, your goal should be to get ahead and stay ahead. Check into class regularly and participate.
In a typical class, you'll be expected to respond to weekly discussion questions (and perhaps pose your own questions to the class about assigned readings). You'll also be required to complete weekly individual and team assignments, which may include writing papers, making PowerPoint presentations, taking tests, or doing tutorials. In most online classes, instructors will give you weekly feedback.
To get the most out of your class:
* Participate as directed by your instructor. He wants to know that you're engaged, and he'll gauge this by your online participation, such as your number of posts.
* Follow the assignment criteria, including the details. Check and double-check your papers for grammar, sentence clarity, and APA format.
* Turn in your assignments on time.
Crossing the finish line
Online nursing programs offer valuable learning experiences coupled with a flexibility that can't be matched in a traditional learning environment. Enjoy the route and the destination.
Learning the lingo
Here are some common online classroom terms.
Asynchronous learning: online learning that occurs at any time of the day. With no set class hours, students don't need to be logged in at the same time.
Bulletin board system: a system, typically specific to a school, where messages are posted and discussion forums are found
Database: articles grouped by topics that are accessed through online libraries
Discussion forum, forum,ornewsgroup: where students "meet" online to discuss topics
Discussion question: a question posed by your facilitator/instructor
Learning team: a group of students who work together on an assignment
Post: a message, similar to an e-mail message, that's sent to the class via a discussion forum
Thread: a list of posts under one subject heading