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The Technology Era's Influence on the Increasing Popularity of Online Education

Cori Van Dusen is a first-year nursing student at Cal Baptist School of Nursing in Riverside, CA.  Her goal is to eventually become an Intensive Care Nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).  She is on track to earn her RN certification and plans to continue on to earn her master degree in nursing, as she would like to teach nursing courses to give back to the nursing community.

It's no secret that technology dominates the way things are done and the pace of modern-day life in the 21st century.  We conduct business via email.  We pay our bills online.  We shop for clothing, groceries and plane tickets on the Internet.  We keep online calendars that email us reminders to wish a loved one "Happy Birthday."  We keep in touch with loved ones and reconnect with people from our past via sites like Facebook that have opened up international lines of communication.  It's important to recognize that these unforeseen advances in the world of technology extend beyond conducting business and building relationships; technological innovation has led to explosive growth in the education arena as well. 

Technology has given us the opportunity to take part in college level courses in the "virtual" classroom, allowing us to maintain commitments to our personal and professional lives-while simultaneously pursuing our personal and professional passions.  The dynamic nature of the online classroom not only provides convenience and flexibility to the modern day online learner; the online classroom reaches students of all ages and educational levels who previously may not have been able to access higher education classes.  Thanks to the rapidly-expanding reach of the virtual education world, the field of nursing in particular will experience growth that will strengthen the profession in ways traditional education alone cannot.

What is Online Education?

According to a recent study conducted by Elaine Allan and Jeff Seaman of the Sloane Consortium, a professional leadership organization that advocates online education, online courses "are those in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online" (p.3).  The introduction of this technology-dependent way of learning has built upon the traditional classroom setting by presenting knowledge in a digital form that is accessible through one central network: the Internet.  Through emails, blogs, forums, videos and a constantly expanding set of advanced multimedia tools, students enrolled in a single online course, or a comprehensive online degree program, learn from college professors who are also qualified to teach traditional college courses. 

Making the Connections

According to the Stilton Company, an Internet & Technology Solutions Company based in New Jersey, "Web-enabled communication technologies are at the forefront of rapid change in education from the K-12 level through postgraduate education."  In other words, the rapidly-advancing multimedia tools the world has access to are being implemented to teach students of all ages; as a result of this innovative technology, online professors are often made more accessible through a virtual store that technically-speaking, never closes.  Professor participation in online discussions through class forums, email threads and blog postings actually serves as a way to connect them to their students through a digital medium that dominates the way modern day society communicates. 

Brad Chilton, PhD, & Vice President of Enrollment & Information at Tarleton State University, comments on the evolution of the virtual classroom in The Dallas Morning News: "We offered our first online course in 2001 and the initial classes were very text-based.  Now we have evolved to include interactive features and there is so much more we can do to make learning a rich experience."

Online Education vs. Traditional Classroom Education

The viewpoint that face-to-face, in-person instruction is absolutely essential to learning is being challenged by the online education world, as millions of online learners graduate every year with high school diplomas, certificates, and associate, bachelor, master and doctorate degrees.   These virtual learners come from all walks of life: an 18-year old striving to earn a bachelor degree in English Literature, a single mother setting her sights on a master degree in Psychology, or a 42-year old race car enthusiast who has always wanted to learn more about the world of auto mechanic repair.  While one of these three above mentioned students may need the personal attention that more structured classroom courses offer, others may need to retain a sense of independence while they are in school.  The decision people make regarding whether or not online classes work for them is one they have to make independently, as the reasons differ for every person.

Why Choose to Learn Online?

The reasons people choose online education as a means to expand their knowledge and opportunities vary.  Some online learners work full-time jobs to maintain their income while they learn; their busy and constantly shifting schedules benefit from the ease and flexibility of attending class wherever there is an internet connection, on their own time.  Online schools allow you to read the course material and complete the coursework online; as a result, working professionals in their twenties, thirties, forties and beyond instantly become part of an international network of learners.  From the comfort of their Internet-enabled homes, offices, airport terminals or coffee shops, they are able to complete weekly assignments on their own time, at their own pace.   Brittany Davison, a master degree holder in Forensic Accounting, earned her graduate-level credentials by doing exactly this, over the course of two years:

"After I graduated from Sonoma State University, I was accepted into Florida Atlantic's Executive Masters Program for Forensic Accounting.  An executive masters program is made for the working professional, where you are able to hold a full-time job while earning your degree.  All of my lectures were on Saturday mornings, and I had the choice of attending them on campus, live on a web cam from home, or I could download the lectures and watch them at my leisure" (Davison, 2009).

How the Nursing World Will Benefit from Online Education

According to the website nursingdegrees.com, a nursing website focused on empowering potential and current nurses through education, there are many paths you can take to become a specific type of nurse.  You can earn your associate or bachelor degree in nursing, eventually becoming a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN), a Registered Nurse (RN), Nurse Practitioners (NP) and more.  In order to earn an associate or bachelor degree in nursing, you can enroll in an on-campus degree program that will allow you to work towards these professions in the more traditional way.  But what if you have another primary career and source of income and are simply looking to get your feet wet in the nursing world? Maybe you want to take an introductory, basic nursing class to see if the urge to switch professions is a signal to follow your passion.  Online nursing degree programs give you that flexibility to explore this field from the comfort of your own home thanks to Internet technology, without giving up your income.  The availability to explore the world of nursing course by course online has given-and will continue to give-the nursing profession international exposure that classroom programs simply cannot.  Logically speaking, if more people know that nursing courses are available online, the pool from which nurses are drawn grows larger.  In the short and long term, this will strengthen the healthcare industry by filling it with passionate, qualified nurses.

Online Nursing Continuing Education Units (CEUs)

The other type of online nursing courses are designed for nurses who are currently working and need to complete mandatory continuing education units, or CEUs.  For example, a Registered Nurse who has been working for 20 years has built a set of skills that can only be acquired through on-the-job experience; however, an RN fresh out of nursing school will have the most current knowledge of emerging technologies that may be used in nursing in years to come.  In order to stay abreast of the best ways to help their patients, RNs can enroll in online "refresher" classes that they can complete from their own homes, on their days off.

So, Why Are 4.6 Million Students Enrolled in Online Courses?

When you look at this statistic, it's difficult to ignore that the technology boom of our 21st century has changed the personal and professional landscape in which we live.  Information is accessible, at our fingertips, day and night-all we need is an Internet connection.  If you're an online student, all you need is a list of academic and professional goals, a desire to balance your lifestyle and stay motivated and a computer that can connect you to a world of opportunity.  Whether you're a 22-year old who is looking to earn a bachelor degree in engineering or a veteran nurse who needs to learn about the latest advances in pediatric medicine, online education is a gift that you can weave into your life without putting it on hold.  You can even go back and earn your online high school diploma to build a foundation for your education and career.  Working when you want, at your own pace, allows you to cultivate passions you may have ignored before the dawn of the Internet.  Financially, you can also keep your main source of income while you study, creating a sense of stability that will ease your mind.  Whatever your situation may be, ask yourself this: "Is there something I have been wanting to learn that I haven't made time for?" If so, log on to make the connections that will skyrocket your personal and professional life.

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