Academic Partnerships Helps UT Arlington Move Courses Online as More Nurses and Hospitals Seek Access
By Greg Russell
According to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, fewer than 40 percent of all employed registered nurses hold a baccalaureate degree in nursing. Yet, calls to increase the number of higher educated registered nurses have not caught up with the growing demand. Hospitals and other health care facilities have a great need for nurses who are baccalaureate prepared. For example, surgical patients treated by nurses holding a BSN have a "substantial survival advantage" over those who did not have nurses with a BSN according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Nurses who complete their BSN also open the door to additional career opportunities and provide a new level of credibility and care to their patients.
The University of Texas at Arlington (UT Arlington) School of Nursing has taken aim toward increasing access to a baccalaureate education for registered nurses with a new model that offers the flexibility to fit with a nurse's schedule while maintaining the same high level of quality for which the university is known.
"We knew students were missing prerequisite courses so our solution was to include them in the online program. We're in touch with the market needs and with the needs of our healthcare partners. And, we really have the right people here to do it," says Dr. Elizabeth Poster, dean of the UT Arlington School of Nursing.
"We have stepped out of our comfort zone of just having students in the classroom and are embracing new technologies to meet our responsibilities as an educational institution, and to increase the number of BSN prepared nurses," adds Gladys Maryol, director of the undergraduate program at the UT Arlington School of Nursing.
Nursing is a practice that continues to undergo change in response to medical, social and procedural developments. And these changes, in turn, will continue to impact how its students are taught.
"Our program focuses on changing how the working RN practices nursing," says UT Arlington School of Nursing Associate Dean Mary (Beth) Mancini. She cited increasing emphasis on patient safety, health policy, health information technology and genetics as points that are taught and emphasized differently today than during the past decade. She also cited the natural shifting of age and cultural demographics, and what these mean to the practicing nurse.
"All these things are necessary for today's practicing nurses to understand and integrate into their day-to-day practice," Mancini says.
Meeting Industry Demands
The UT Arlington School of Nursing is helping to progressively meet the extra demand for more BSN prepared nurses. One method began last fall when the school partnered with service provider Academic Partnerships in offering an RN to BSN distance education program. This online program gives registered nurses a path to a bachelor's degree through a plan that includes a combination of nursing and general courses. The program incorporates all prerequisite courses, up to 18 general education courses. Students who have already fulfilled their prerequisites can finish the program in as little as 13 months by taking eight nursing courses and one upper level elective for 35 credit hours.
"There are a significant number of efforts to increase the number of BSN prepared nurses in Texas," Mancini says. "The academic partnership program is helping the practicing nurses to acquire the knowledge and skills to practice in the new roles of today and in the future—doing it in an efficient and effective manner."
The RN to BSN degree plan is based on a curriculum designed completely by UT Arlington faculty, who intimately understand the additional knowledge needed by nurses in hospital settings.
Courses are open for admission at eight entry points per year. Special instructional design efforts have resulted in user friendly, media rich coursework that engages today's busy online student, and encourages them to complete reading assignments and participate in online discussion forums. A team of qualified academic "coaches" works with course instructors to assist students to successfully progress through the program. Individual "coaches" are assigned to groups of about 25 students from within the larger course "classroom." Each "coach" holds at least a master's degree and helps coordinate and facilitate course activities for students.
"These individuals are an important aspect of our program. They provide valuable support and course navigation for students throughout the length of the program and help students stay on target and on time as they progress to graduation," says Mancini.
Maryol says the program is clearly being embraced, and she points to the 1,400 students who have enrolled since it began in November 2008. Some students who began the program at that time will be able to graduate as early as this December (2009), and will walk the commencement stage alongside those who attended on campus.
"In our traditional RN to BSN program, students are required to come to class one full day a week," she says. "That becomes difficult over the course of two semesters—it becomes very difficult for some to maintain that—but access online is a different story. And the feedback that we are getting from students in the program is very positive. Online learning is not for everyone. That's why we are committed to maintaining our traditional programs, because there are students who benefit most from interacting with others in a classroom."
She adds, "We're able, with the two tracks, to meet the needs of a much larger group of students."
Broadening Geographical Boundaries
Added to its convenience of offering a Web-based education, the RN to BSN program can create a larger number of BSN prepared nurses through its outreach to hospital cities beyond the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Maryol points out that the online program now includes students who are registered nurses in San Antonio, Austin and Houston. After graduating, they can seek professional advancement and provide enhanced patient care in those more distant areas.
"It's not bound by geography," she said about this new program. "In our traditional program, we have functioned with designated distance sites for many years and those are in the close north Texas geographic area. But that's a fairly confined geographic area."
Tuition reimbursement, though common for medical education, is another factor that has been simplified for students in this new UT Arlington program. Generally, when registered nurses enroll in educational programs, they have to wait the duration of a normal semester or academic year and earn passing grades before finally being reimbursed. In the case of this shorter and more affordable class structure, students are able to pay lower tuition costs and then be reimbursed within a few weeks. In addition, the program's unique design has created cost efficiencies that are passed along to the students, making UT Arlington's RN to BSN program even more affordable.