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Online Education's Impact On The Nursing Shortage

Submitted by Admin on October 29, 2009, 8:10 am

The current shortage of nurses is predicted to reach 20% by 2015 and 29% by 2020. Many reasons have been cited for the nursing shortage, among them the poor work/life balance nurses endured for many years, challenging conditions, low pay, and increase in the number of patients. In that sense, the shortage has been beneficial, as it threw a spotlight on certain problems within nursing practice. Nowadays, nurses are enjoying better work/life balance, competitive pay, and diverse career options. Nursing has become a popular career track once more.

In addition to making nursing an attractive career option, the shortage of nurses has had another interesting effect. It has put pressure on the development of creative educational and practical tools. One of the most powerful and far-reaching of these tools is online education.

Although online nursing education is fairly mainstream now, it wasn’t always that way. The popularization of online education in the late 1980s to mid 1990s created many unexpected areas of use and abuse. At that time, the technical infrastructure didn’t meet the needs of students and educators, so online classes generally had poorer educational outcomes than those offered by traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. In addition, “diploma mills” that promised legitimate degrees without proper authority became widespread.

These problems caused some educators to scoff at the idea of online education, saying that it would never be able to match the high academic standards of traditional learning and that it was impractical. Even as recently as 2004, the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire published an article stating pessimistically that the collapse of a British e-university had “raised doubts about the future of online education.”

That same article, however, cited Paul Bacsich, an e-learning ventures consultant, as saying, “One of the challenges for e-learning providers is finding smaller niches that are less contested, like in healthcare.” And indeed, Professor Bacsich’s prediction came true. In the last 5 years, online education has not only solved many of the problems that beset it in the 1990s, but it has also been a godsend to disciplines that were experiencing a shortage of educators, such as healthcare.

Within healthcare, the nursing shortage put pressure on educators and developers to create a working model of online education. The model needed to enable nursing students to acquire a top-notch education at a reasonable cost and to allow faculty to offer their expertise to a greater number of students at a time. This meant that nurse educators had to become comfortable with using the technology and developers had to create technological infrastructure that was user-friendly and adaptable.

Nowadays, online nursing education is a booming industry with thousands of successful graduates to sing its praises. The earlier concerns with academic standards are no longer an issue. Students can easily verify if an online institution is reputable, and many prestigious brick-and-mortar universities offer online nursing programs.

It’s anyone’s guess whether online nursing programs would have developed so quickly and so successfully were it not for the pressure of the nursing shortage. Perhaps if nursing practice had not been subject to the problems that led to the shortage, online programs would be less popular among nursing students. However, one thing is for sure: although online education may have developed out of necessity, it has had unexpected benefits.

One unexpected benefit is that the flexibility and lower cost have made nursing education a reality for older students in other career paths, bringing fresh outlooks into nursing practice and diversifying the field. The focus on using technology has prepared the next generation of nurses to work with electronic medical records and to intuitively grasp telemedicine and advanced communication technologies.

And finally, online nursing education has allowed older nurses to continue teaching past retirement. “We have been successful in deferring the full retirement of emeritus faculty through creative arrangements,” says Dr. Sheila Haas, Dean of Loyola University Chicago’s Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing. “For example, one of our distinguished professors, Nola Pender, PhD, FAAN, retired to Florida. She continues to teach an on-line scientific writing course required of our doctoral students…In this case and in others like it, we have captured the experience and wisdom of career academics.” (Smith, Alison P., 2005)

As online nursing programs continue to strive for new heights of academic excellence, it will be interesting to see how online education impacts nursing practice as a whole. One thing is for sure: the future will hold both new challenges and unexpected rewards.

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