Online Nursing ProgramsFlexible Learning for Meeting Future Healthcare Demands

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Despite being one of the country’s largest professions, we need more nurses. Some say an aging population is the culprit; others cite higher birth rates and greater access to healthcare. Regardless of the why, it’s the how that dictates the number of RNs, LPNs and NPs who make a difference in hospitals and other medical facilities across the country.

How can a country in need of nurses get more qualified RNs, LPNs and NPs into hospitals, urgent care and other medical clinics? The expansion of higher educational options is part of the answer. The flexible and convenient nature of online nursing programs makes educational attainment easier than ever for those interested in becoming a nurse. Learn more about online nursing programs, including what’s available, how they work, and what you should evaluate before enrolling.

Online Nursing Degree Options

There are online educational options for nurses at just about any stage, from those just starting out to experienced nurses who want to pursue graduate-level study and become advanced practitioners. Take a look at the various online degrees available in nursing as well as the outcome of each.

Online Degree Description
Associate degree (ADN) The online ADN is the quickest path to becoming a nurse, taking about two years to complete for candidates without any prior higher education. People who wish to enter the workforce as soon as possible often choose this degree, and then pursue more advanced education after they have gained some professional working experience.
Bachelor’s degree (BSN) Online bachelor’s degrees in nursing typically take four years to complete for full-time students. Online, it can be pursued at an accelerated pace, but many RNs work toward their BSNs part-time while continuing to work. In addition to core coursework in nursing and science, the BSN mandates that students take liberal arts courses to round out their education. While not immediately relevant to everyday nursing duties, the broader education can open doors to leadership positions. Moreover, several states either require (or are in the process of requiring) that RNs hold at least a BSN.
Master’s degree (MSN) Those who wish to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)—such as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners—must earn at least a master’s degree. Full-time online MSN programs, roughly 60 graduate-level credits, take about two years to complete. MSNs are ideal for nurses who want to specialize, even in nonclinical healthcare roles.
Doctorate degree (DNP or PhD) The doctorate is a terminal degree for nurses who want to be independent practitioners; programs typically, but not always, require a bachelor’s for entry. Because there are different specializations for APRNs, the length of time to complete a doctorate varies. Three years is a reasonable time frame for a student beginning with a BSN; those with a master’s might finish in two. Although a doctorate is not necessary for most careers, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that DNPs (Doctor of Nursing Practice) be required for APRNs. Another option for doctoral study is the PhD degree; the key difference between a DNP and PhD is that the former focuses on clinical practice while the latter is a research-oriented degree.

Online Nursing Bridge Programs

Students who already have a nursing diploma or degree can also pursue online bridge programs, which eliminate redundant coursework and speed up the process of earning a degree:

Online Bridge Program Description
LPN to ADN While RNs work independently, licensed practical nurses work under the supervision of RNs. Becoming an LPN, which typically takes two years of full-time coursework, can be considered a stepping stone to becoming an RN. LPNs can expect to spend an additional one to two years completing coursework to achieve an associate degree in nursing (ADN), which will qualify them to sit for the RN exam. Some programs have specific course prerequisites, and require that students have taken them within a certain time frame and achieved a minimum grade.
LPN to BSN Full-time students in an LPN to BSN program can finish their studies in two to four years, depending on how many prerequisites they have completed in advance. Some online programs, such as the one at North Dakota State University, stipulate that LPNs enter with an associate degree in nursing. Others, such as Indiana State University’s online LPN to BS program, only require that students have completed nine nursing prerequisite courses.
RN to BSN As of March 2015, there were more than 400 fully or partially online RN to BSN programs, all of which are designed for RNs who hold an ADN. Standard programs are 120 semester credits (180 quarter credits); schools have individual policies about transferring credits.
RN to MSN In most RN to MSN programs, nurses who hold ADNs can earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously over two to three years (some programs skip the BSN). Students begin with undergraduate work and progress to master’s studies in the latter half of the program. RN to MSN programs are time-efficient because they consolidate redundant coursework required at both the baccalaureate and graduate levels, quickly propelling students into specialized tracks such as nurse educator, nurse midwife, and diabetes nursing.
RN to DNP RN to DNP programs are a bit uncommon, but they do exist. Generally, RNs entering these programs already have BSNs, but many schools will admit students with ADNs if they have a bachelor’s degree in some area. These students, however, can expect to take more classes at the start of the program. Length of these programs varies and is usually offered in a hybrid format. For example, the hybrid RN to DNP program at MGH Institute of Health Professions, takes four to five years to complete; the first half of the curriculum is taught on campus and leads to an MSN; the second half is completed online for a DNP.

The Nuts and Bolts of Online Nursing Degrees

Online education is a great option for a lot of students, but before embracing the format, applicants should consider the ways online classes and programs differ from their on-campus equivalents.

Class Sizes

There is ongoing debate about what an appropriate online class size is, with some arguing that class sizes should be limited regardless of the format, and others pointing out that large class sizes are consistent with the self-starter ethos of online students, who are expected to take greater responsibility for their distance learning. Some online schools have addressed the issue by creating cohort programs so students can take classes with a smaller group of students who stay together throughout the entire program.

Cohort Start Dates

Unlike traditional college programs, in which all students start classes at the same time, online programs are able to offer more choices. Many online nursing degree programs offer multiple start dates, which means aspiring nurses can apply throughout the year. For example, the RN to BSN program at the University of Texas at Arlington, has 11 start dates, meaning that students can be attending classes within a month of applying.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Learning

Although online programs are touted for their flexibility, it’s important to pay attention to each program’s instructional methods. Some courses—and even some entire programs—are asynchronous, meaning that students are provided with materials via online tools, and given a time frame, usually about a week, to complete assignments. They then choose when to log in and do work, using discussion boards or collaborating via wikis and other online tools. Synchronous online classes, on the other hand, require students to log in at a predetermined time and contribute via video conferencing, a chat application, or some other medium. Such classes more closely resemble classroom-based courses, with information being delivered and discussed in real time.

There are benefits to both course types. Synchronous courses give opportunities for student interaction that aren’t available to the same extent in asynchronous courses, whereas asynchronous courses are, by nature, flexible and allow students time to process what they have learned before contributing. In an effort to reap the benefits of each approach, teachers are beginning to incorporate both elements into their courses.

Full-Time vs. Part-Time

Online schools have pioneered the idea of flexible, part-time study schedules, and have advertised that fact. However, there is a catch: The cost of part-time enrollment (usually anything less than three classes a quarter for undergraduate students) is calculated on a per-credit basis, whereas full-time study tends to be counted at a flat rate. Students who attend part-time, then, generally pay a bit more over the course of their degree and, by nature, will take longer to complete the program.

Tuition and Financial Aid

As with on-campus programs, tuition for online programs depends on two factors: residency and enrollment status. Students attending an in-state program at a public university benefit from lower in-state tuition costs, whereas out-of-state students typically do not (although this depends on the individual college or university). This designation does not matter for private colleges, which make no geographical distinctions. Second, per-credit tuition can make a degree much more expensive than full-time study, depending upon how the school tiers its tuition rates.

There are also costs common to online programs that may not show up in a traditional campus program, and vice versa. For example, applicants should calculate the technology fee levied for online courses, as well as any expected travel expenses for academic residencies or clinical rotations. These may cut into the savings from on-campus fees such as parking or room and board.

To fund their education, online students have the same access to financial aid as their on-campus counterparts. Schools themselves are a good source of funds, but by far the biggest provider of financial aid is the federal government, which disburses nearly 75 percent of financial aid funding. Students should file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®); the U.S. government uses the information applicants provide to calculate how much students or their families are expected to contribute toward their education. The school’s financial aid office will work to make sure the rest is covered by grants or loans.

Online students should pay special attention to the timing for filing the FAFSA®. Because it was initially designed for campus-based students, its filing deadline corresponds to that, with students having to send in their FAFSA® between January 1 and June 30. Thus, online students should keep in mind that although they can start school at any time, the funding may not be ready by their start date if they did not file the FAFSA® by its set deadline.


Online learning relies heavily on the use of information technology, and nursing students should be comfortable using a variety of tools. Here are a few they can expect to use in a virtual classroom:

Learning Management System

An LMS is software specifically designed for delivering courses online. Learning management systems, such as Blackboard and Moodle, are used on a daily basis because they facilitate communication and content sharing between teachers and nursing students or among students themselves.


From news on the latest change in healthcare policies to pushing back the date for a physiology exam, email notifications can keep online nursing students abreast of discussion posts or assignments so they do not have to remain constantly logged into an LMS.

Discussion Boards

Online discussion boards are one useful tool for asynchronous learning and are crucial for a collaborative field like nursing. Many professors make class participation via the discussion board a part of the student’s grade, which means nursing students will be required to share their thoughts on the shifting demographics in patient populations, ask questions regarding new technology, or debate the pros and cons of new health information privacy policies.


Whereas discussion boards are designed for communication, Wikis are designed for collaboration. Students may be asked to use a wiki for group projects.

Video Conference

Smaller synchronous courses can use video conferences to hold group discussions during class time.


In addition to regular lectures or videos, professors can use podcasts to discuss special interest issues, such as patient demographic changes, affects of technology, or the consequences of increased healthcare coverage. Such podcasts can serve as supplemental material for nursing students.

Video Presentation

Content delivery is not a one-way street. Nursing students may be asked to record video presentations or to demonstrate an aspect of patient interaction to verify that they understand course materials. For nursing students, video presentations can be particularly helpful in science, biology, and courses that focus on bedside manners.

Clinical and Hands-On Experience

While general education courses often translate easily to online learning, clinical requirements, which require hands-on work with patients in healthcare settings, can prove somewhat of a dilemma for online nursing students. Online nursing degree programs have different approaches to address this challenge.

Some, such as the RN to BSN bridge program offered at the Tyler campus of the University of Texas, have designed their online nursing programs in a way that calls for minimal clinical time, using the reasoning that their students are already nurses employed in the profession. This is common to many bridge programs, which often share the goal of advancing students quickly through the degree process and may allow students to apply work experience toward their clinical coursework.

Nonetheless, clinicals are still a requirement, and students are discouraged from using preceptors from their current workplace. Instead, they must find their own clinical experiences and then confirm with the school that their choices meet program requirements. Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, for example, negotiates each graduate clinical placement after consulting with the student. However, because of the large number of online students throughout the U.S., there is an extensive national pool of preceptors that popular schools can call upon. Some schools, such as Simmons College, employ staff whose sole job is to find preceptors—a service that can be a big selling point for busy online students.

International students should make special note of clinical requirements; they may need to plan for additional time and expense, as clinicals must generally be done in the US. It’s important that students, US-based and international, speak with an administrator to get full details on how clinicals are handled at the school and what would be expected of the student in order to graduate and seek proper licensure for employment.

Evaluating Online Nursing Schools

In order to choose the online nursing school that best suits their individual goals, students would do well to thoroughly investigate the content and overall performance of several programs. Here are five things to keep an eye on while searching:

High NCLEX Pass Rates

A primary goal of any nursing program should be to prepare students to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX PN or RN), which is required to work as a licensed practical or registered nurse. In 2015, 85.5 percent of students educated in the U.S. passed the test the first time. Each state publishes a list of its nursing schools’ pass rates online, typically for the past five years, so prospective students can check how well a particular school stacks up. Students should keep in mind, however, that lower pass rates do not necessarily mean an inferior education, but may indicate admission of students with more academic needs.


Another standard requirement of state licensure is graduation from an accredited school, meaning one that has been evaluated by educators and judged to provide a worthwhile education. There are two layers of accreditation: the school as a whole, as well as the individual nursing program. There are two recognized accrediting bodies for nursing programs. The first is the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (formerly the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission), or ACEN, which accredits all levels of schooling. The second is the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which exclusively handles bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Clinical/Hands-on Experiences

Experienced nurses provide a higher overall quality of care, pointing to the importance of clinical hours as a barometer of success in the professional setting. Whereas tests demonstrate that students have attained theoretical and practical knowledge, their ability to apply such knowledge is part of a separate skill set, one that must be nurtured. Current nurses taking part in a bridge program may feel they need fewer clinical hours, but non-practicing nurses will find them vital. The number of required clinical hours may vary significantly between programs, so potential candidates should analyze their needs and choose a program that has sufficient hours. Although accreditors set clinical requirements, only 11 states and territories require a specific minimum number of clinical hours for ADNs.


Nurses at all levels have the opportunity to specialize. Throughout the course of a general nursing program, ADNs and BSNs will likely gain specialized experience as they complete rotations through several different wings of a hospital. For example, a new nurse may spend four months at an oncology unit and another four months in the pediatrics unit, before finishing up the year in cardiology and deciding where to work permanently. At the advanced level, nurses seeking MSNs and DNPs are required to specialize. These graduate-level nurses should ensure a program offers a program within their specialty.

State Agreements

Although the lure of online education is that it can be done from anywhere, the reality is that state regulations and variations in educational requirements will affect a student’s choice of school. Completing clinical hours may be a sticking point, as certain states do not have reciprocity agreements allowing for on-ground programs to be virtually administered. Prospective students should always check with the admissions office about state agreements before applying.

Other Popular Online Nursing Degrees

Although most of nursing involves working with patients, there are important roles for nurses that go beyond direct patient care. Below are three examples of popular online nursing degree programs for those who want to gain – or enhance – skills outside the clinical realm.