Time and Space – AIC Online Program Brings New Facet to Nursing Education

Mary Tarbell says she found the photo, circa 1978, in a drawer at home. It now resides in her office at American International College, however, and for a number of reasons.
Nostalgia is one of them. Indeed, Tarbell is one of the 14 tired-looking nursing students seen standing on the steps of Lee Hall, the oldest building on the AIC campus. Then, it was a classroom building; now it houses a number of administrative offices. The photo takes her back to the very beginning of her professional career.
But mostly, this innocuous snapshot provides a good dose of perspective for Tarbell. That photo depicts the first class in the school’s RN-to-BSN program, which, coincidentally, she now coordinates as the latest step in a long career in nursing and nursing education.
Much has obviously changed since 1978, said Tarbell, and that includes the realm of RN-to-BSN programs, and especially the one at AIC.
When she was a student there, students, who were also nurses working within the community, had graduated from a mix of area community colleges, but also the very last of the nursing schools based at area hospitals — Baystate Health’s was the last to close. Also, AIC’s offering was obviously a physical (classroom) program, as Al Gore (or whoever) had yet to invent the Internet.
Much later, RN-to-BSN became a hybrid program, with a mix of online and in-the-classroom offerings. And now, it is totally online, and therefore somewhat unique in this region.
And this complete transformation came about … well, because that’s what the students enrolled in it wanted, said both Tarbell and Karen Rousseau, director of Nursing at AIC.
“Students were asking us, ‘do we really have to come to the classroom?’” said Rousseau, adding that, after some hard introspection, she and others determined that the answer to that question was ‘no.’
“The students actually feel supported enough that they’re happy to be completely online,” said Rousseau, adding that, through the use of a system known as BigBlueButton, the program can provide a form of videoconferencing that supplies students with a needed measure of face-to-face interaction, although there are only voices, not faces.
“We can all be in the room, even if geography separates us,” said Tarbell, adding that, while the online format brings a high level of convenience to individuals who need the BSN to advance in their careers (more on why later) but are challenged by the demands of work and life to attain one in a traditional classroom setting, it also provides a learning experience that matches or exceeds that of the physical setting in most all ways.
“With this format, I believe we’re requiring a higher level of interaction from them than what you’d find in the classroom,” said Rousseau. “It’s not the traditional ‘here’s the lecturer, and they’re going to provide the information, and you’re going to sit and listen’ — the sage on the stage. This is a very active and engaged learning system.”
And this program also brings new levels of convenience to the equation.
“The big reason for the popularity of this online model is … life, the lives that these students are living,” said Tarbell. “Many of them are full-time working nurses, some are working two jobs, they’re supporting their families … and if they put themselves to work for school at 10 o’clock at night when the kids are in bed or at 6 o’clock in the morning, it makes things much easier for them. They can do it 24/7, any day of the week, any time of day.”
For this issue and its focus on nursing education, HCN takes an in-depth look at AIC’s RN-to-BSN program and how it has certainly evolved since those 14 students arranged themselves on the steps at Lee Hall.
From a Distance
Turning back the clock only about 35 years this time, Tarbell said she had to quit a job she “really adored” in order to attend the classes needed to earn her graduate degree in nursing.
Most of the students enrolled in various RN-to-BSN programs in this region haven’t had to leave a job to do so, but they have been challenged to add that ball to the many they were already juggling. And many find the juggling so difficult that they put off attaining that bachelor’s degree, which is becoming increasingly important to attain many career goals for those choosing the nursing field.
“The employment market is pushing the associate-degree nurse to get the BSN,” said Rousseau. “The larger employers are requiring new hires to enroll for their BSN right away, and they’re encouraging their long-standing employees to complete that BSN.
“There’s a national goal, established by the National Institute of Medicine, that 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the licensed nurses in the country be BSN by 2020,” she went on. “Meanwhile, the state has a goal of 65{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, with the number currently around 50{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, and Baystate Health has maintained the 20-20 goal for themselves.”
Tarbell agreed. “Sometimes, the associate-degree nurses aren’t getting the jobs that they really want based on hospital policy,” she told HCN, adding that the BSN makes a candidate much more marketable.
These statistics and sentiments certainly help explain the relevance of a RN-to-BSN track, as well as the online model, said Rousseau, adding that, when AIC decided several years ago to relaunch its RN-to-BSN program, there was initial apprehension about an online program.
“But after running it for a year, it was clear that the nervousness about an online program had dissolved,” she went on. “We polled the students in the first cohort, we polled the students that we were bringing in for the next cohort, as well as everyone else we saw when we out recruiting, and people said they would prefer all online, knowing that we would have the ability to offer synchronous class meetings using virtual tools.”
AIC’s offering is a 15-month program, with students entering in the fall one year and graduating the following December. The program is broken down into 10 classes running seven weeks each, and these offerings include “Health Care Informatics,” “Advanced Concepts in Nursing Theory and Practice,” “Health Promotion for Vulnerable Populations,” “Nursing in a Global Society,” and “Leadership & Management in Nursing & Healthcare.” There is a also a capstone seminar.
But what makes this program unique is not what is taught, necessarily, but how, said Rousseau and Tarbell, adding, again that the online format provides students with the requisite learning opportunities and needed support from instructors, as well as that convenience factor.
“Students have seven modules and set assignments for seven days, and they then have seven days to complete those assignments,” said Tarbell. “They have research papers, short papers, they have presentations to do, and they have discussion boards, which are really the key to online learning.”
Elaborating, she said students will be given a topic and then be required to post a scholarly article about that topic. At least two students will then provide a response to that article.
“So there’s a lot of back and forth that’s going on with these discussion boards and discussion forums,” she said, adding that the process is similar to an in-class discussion, but is simply carried out virtually.
Rousseau agreed, and noted that this format brings benefits for most of the students.
“They can be very thoughtful about what they’re saying, as opposed to talking off the cuff like they would in the classroom,” she explained. “And they’re honest with each other; they provide reflection and critique of what someone else is saying, whether they agree with it or not.”
A Program That Clicks “Death by PowerPoint.”
That’s another of the clever phrases Rousseau summoned as she talked about some of the shortcomings of traditional classroom education.
With AIC’s RN-to-BSN program, students are more likely to create a PowerPoint than take one in, she went on, adding that, overall, this format provides virtually the same learning opportunities as a classroom setting, and it provides them virtually, bringing a host of advantages to students.
Such opportunities weren’t available in 1978, said Tarbell as she looked over her keepsake photo, adding that the times have changed for this RN-to-BSN program — and for the better.