Distance education is growing by leaps and bounds. Here's what it's all about, and how to decide if it would work for you.


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Nancy Cooper has her RN diploma and is traveling for a few years to see the country. But she wants to get her BSN. Can she pursue both goals at once?

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Bob Hart has his BSN and wants to get a master's degree and become an acute care nurse practitioner. He's been traveling for 5 years and loves being on the road. Is there a good solution for him?


Joann Bryant is almost finished her RN-to-BSN program that she was able to juggle in while traveling. She has only one course remaining, but she's tempted to accept an assignment out of the region and is torn about her options.


In all the cases at the left, distance education may fit the bill. Evolving from the correspondence courses of years gone by, distance education options have been fueled by technology-audio, video, and computers. Although far from the only option, online instruction is growing particularly fast. Some schools put selected nursing courses from their program online; others put entire programs. You'll find undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral opportunities that will offer you the flexibility and convenience traditional programs can't. But don't expect to save money-they cost about the same as on-campus courses. Of course, expenses can vary tremendously, depending on your choice of school and what kind of financial help you seek. But along with the growth of distance education programs have come additional financial resources.


So is distance education for you? Are you self-motivated, self-disciplined, and flexible? These are basic characteristics you'll need, so if you're hesitating, better think twice. Are you independent? If you tend to rely heavily on instructors and frequently seek advice or explanations, you might be better off in a regular classroom. Do you like studying and reading on your own? With fewer lectures to attend, the onus will be on you to read more than you might expect. And are you ready for the challenge? Don't be surprised if online courses are as tough as their traditional counterparts-the good ones should be.


Still interested? Here's what you can do, step-by-step.


1. Get practical: Confirm that distance education is for you. Read about it, talk about it, think about your goals and how it will help. How does it fit into your lifestyle, and how will you pay for it? Review the Task List to confirm that your computer skills are solid.


2. Do some fact finding and research. To get a good overview about distance education, visit http://About.com (http://www.distancelearn.about.com) or Peterson's http://LifeLongLearning.com (http://www.lifelonglearning.com/distancelearning). Then focus on finding out what schools offer which programs. With both brand-new and well-established institutions (whether "real" or virtual) getting on the bandwagon, you have a lot to choose from. Pick up a book or two from your library, bookstore, or online source. Look for such titles as Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees Nontraditionally or Bears' College Degrees by Mail and Modem by John Bear and Campus-free College Degrees by Marcie K. Thorson.


3. Identify the programs you're interested in, where they're offered, and how much they cost. Ask your agency about reimbursement to see if you can get some help. If the school has a Financial Aid section on its site, review the contents to see if they'd benefit you.


4. Get the official scoop before you do any more work. Be sure the schools you're interested in are accredited both by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation (see http://www.chea.org/directories) and by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (see http://www.nlnac.org).


5. Review the Web sites of the schools you're interested in (see A Sampler of Schools for some examples) and learn what you can about the course or program; contact them to request any additional catalogs or program brochures they offer.


6. Read everything you can about each school that interests you. Ask around-has anyone you know taken courses there?-or check a Listserv such as http://alt.education.distance to see what people are saying about it (post your own question to get feedback if you don't find something already there).


7. Review the school's requirements-what degrees you hold, your GPA, and so on. It goes without saying that you'll need a computer, but make sure it's up to par by checking the school's catalog or Web site for their minimum system requirements. Also make sure that your computer skills are solid (if you need to polish them, try Beginners' Central at http://www.northernwebs.com/bc/).


8. Visit the school if you can. Ask questions about how many students are enrolled in the nursing program online, how many have graduated, whether you can contact recent graduates or see their work. You'll also want to confirm how large the faculty is, what their credentials are, and where they earned their degrees. Ask about what support services they offer: Can you register electronically, pay online, contact an instructor or a tutor when you need one? Can you transfer credits, as you could with those earned in a classroom?


9. Apply to the schools whose programs or courses work for you. Gather your school transcripts, fill out the applications, and send them to the sources of your choice. Then wait for their reply.



A sampler of schools

Check out the Web sites of these schools that offer various nursing programs or courses via distance education to see what's available. All of them are accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC).



University of Phoenix


http://online.phoenix.edu/CampusProgramList.asp.edu (Click "RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing," "Master of Science in Nursing," or "Master of Science in Nursing/Master of Business Administration/Healthcare Management.")



California State University, Dominguez Hills





University of Colorado-Colorado Springs


http://web.uccs.edu/bethel (Click "Online Education" at the top of the screen.)



Indiana State University, Terre Haute (master's)





University of Kansas, Kansas City





Wayne State University, Detroit





Excelsior College (formerly Regents College)





West Virginia Wesleyan College, Buckhannon





University of Wisconsin-Green Bay




Web sites last accessed on December 21, 2004.


TASK LIST: Are you ready to go online?

Wonder if you're the type of learner who'll excel in an online course? Having basic computer skills like those listed below is essential. Review the list and check off the skills you're comfortable with. Compare it with your school's computer requirements to confirm what's expected, and consider taking a course at a local high school, college, or library if you think you need to bone up.


Do you know how to use:


[white square] Windows


[white square] Word processing, such as Word


[white square] Spreadsheets, such as Excel


[white square] Databases, such as Access


[white square] Presentations, such as PowerPoint



Do you know how to:


[white square] Save a file to your hard drive


[white square] Format a floppy disk


[white square] Save to your floppy disk


[white square] Move, copy, and delete files


[white square] Cut or copy and paste text


[white square] Use a remote access service or Internet Service Provider


[white square] Install plug-ins


[white square] Do a search


[white square] Create and edit bookmarks


[white square] Download and save files


[white square] Send and receive e-mail messages


[white square] Attach files to e-mails


[white square] Print e-mail messages





Developed by the University of Kansas School of Nursing and NetLearning, http://www2.kumc.edu/instruction/edtech/orient/self-assessment.htm