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The U.S. population is getting sicker. So Julie Hubbard went back to school.

If you don’t see the connection, don’t worry—the missing link lies in a study.

Hubbard enrolled in the UT College of Nursing’s RN-to-BSN (registered nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree program at UT.

“I felt it would help me professionally due to the changes that were and are continuing to take place within nursing,” she says. “Nurses are moving to the forefront of health care.”

The same year Hubbard enrolled, the Institute of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned a landmark study that stated that due to the complexity of our population’s health needs and health care system, the nation’s nurses must achieve higher levels of education and training. The study set a goal that 80 percent of the country’s nurses hold a bachelor’s degree by the year 2020. Compounding this goal, more hospitals are aiming to reach “Magnet” status—the gold standard in nursing excellence—in which more nurses must have bachelor’s degrees.

A BSN is considered stronger than an RN because it emphasizes research, theoretical concepts, professional issues, leadership, and community health.

For more than twenty years, UT has offered a successful RN-to-BSN program that typically educated about fifteen students a year. In the program, nurses with an associate’s degree or diploma could enroll after taking about eight prerequisites and then finish the program in about a year. The program was taught in a traditional classroom or laboratory setting.

But Gary Ramsey, chair of the undergraduate nursing program, saw the writing on the wall. An unprecedented demand for educated nurses, matched with the nurses’ demanding schedules, meant something needed to change.

“The 2010 study actually suggested that curricula be revised to reduce barriers to study, such as lack of time for studying and family obligations, and to provide seamless transition from one program to another,” says Ramsey.

Ramsey took a risk and moved what was a very applied and hands-on learning program to an online environment.

The program is the first and only fully online undergraduate program at UT and one of a few fully online RN-to-BSN programs in the state.

“These people are working nurses in their 20s and 30s with families and other commitments in their life,” says Ramsey. “We needed to make it convenient and accessible for them to get their education. More than that, our nation needs them to have these skills.”

Online and Out of the Box

The program helped Hubbard, a working mother of two who sometimes had time for only one class a semester, to complete her bachelor’s degree. An online RN-to-BSN program allowed her to move her education further. She is set to graduate this year—at the top of her class.

Hubbard studying at Old City Java.

Hubbard studying at Old City Java. Photos by Molly Mullin

“When you factor in set class times, your life suddenly revolves around a schedule you no longer have control of,” Hubbard says. “If a situation presents itself that you need to be somewhere during that class time, you have to make a choice: miss class or ignore the other obligation. The online classes allow you to maintain the flexibility to meet your obligations.”

Adaptation to the cyber world has involved out-of-the-box thinking, Ramsey admits. For example, to conduct health assessments, students typically assessed the health of another student in front of their professor. Now, the assessment is done online using a mouse. The mouse may act as a stethoscope, for example, when conducting a respiratory check. The professor can grade on whether it is placed on the correct anatomical area on the screen. Another alternative is a videotaped assessment.

“I actually feel like I have learned more by being in an online class,” says Hubbard. “The structure of this program does not allow you to walk around blindly. The classes challenge you.”

The program also allows the College of Nursing to utilize its cutting-edge technology to simulate the learning environment. For example, students are able to take advantage of DocuCare, created by Associate Professor of Nursing Tami Wyatt, in which students respond to video and text scenarios embedded in the software. Their responses ultimately create a health care plan that professors can grade.

Telehealth—the use of digital technologies to deliver medical care, health education, and public health services by connecting multiple users in separate locations—is also used. Through a grant to Associate Professor of Nursing Nan Gaylord, the technology is deployed at multiple schools in areas lacking adequate health staff, allowing students to do distance learning by assessing students’ health in clinics miles away.

Reaping Rewards

Ramsey’s risk in taking the RN-to-BSN program online has paid off. In less than six months, the program has seen the number of students rise from roughly fifteen to more than seventy-five—and that number continues to rise.

“We have students applying from New Jersey to Washington State,” he says. “Many of their employers are paying the out-of-state tuition because that investment is better than employees taking the time off from work.”

Hubbard says for her the risk was worth it because it has afforded her a degree that helps her patients.

“I continue to increase my understanding of the processes of the human body on a higher level. The greater the understanding you have, the better the care your patients will receive.”

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