Online nursing programs have become more common in recent years. Some students prefer online courses due to the flexibility and independence they offer. Certain types of nursing programs can be completed entirely online. Most, however, require on-site clinical rotations.
Wondering how clinicals work in online nursing school? Read on to learn how online nursing programs are formatted, and how to find and complete clinical rotations at a healthcare site near you.
The Nursing Clinical Component
Nursing programs generally consist of three components:
- Classes and lectures
- Lab sessions
- On-site clinical rotations
Students learn theory in classes and practice nursing skills in simulation labs. Clinical components take place at patient care facilities, such as hospitals, physicians' clinics, or nursing homes. Here, you observe nurses and apply classroom learning under supervision from licensed professionals.
Keep in mind that at some point, all nursing students must complete nursing school clinical experiences. In order to become licensed as a registered nurse (RN), you must complete on-site training. Associate and bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degrees almost always require clinical components.
Online RN-to-BSN programs are aimed towards nurses who already hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN). These programs might not require clinical hours, or allow you to complete them at the healthcare setting you work at.
The number of clinical hours you take depends on state requirements, the type of degree, and the school's curriculum. More advanced degrees, for example, might require more clinical training.
Average Required Clinical Hours by Degree Level
Students in graduate nursing programs typically specialize in a certain patient population. The number of clinical hours required might vary depending on your specialization.
Clinical Experience for Online Nursing Students
Online nursing programs offer theoretical components through web-based features. These include prerecorded lectures or class discussion boards. Some schools provide lab simulations online, while others require you to complete labs in person.
When it comes to clinical rounds, though, you always need to complete required hours on location.
"My online program was cohorted in my city with a set number of students who completed on-site testing, clinical, and skills/simulation training together," says Emma Leigh Geiser, RN. "It felt very much like in-person study, except we had more flexibility for completing the theory portion of the degree."
How Do I Find a Clinical Training Site as an Online Nursing Student?
Finding a clinical site varies for prelicensure and postlicensure nursing students. Schools usually choose where prelicensure students complete clinicals or help you find available sites.
Postlicensure students follow a different process. These programs include RN-to-BSN, master of science in nursing to nurse practitioner, and doctor of nursing programs. Essentially, they are any program that admits nurses who already have licensure. For these programs, nurses usually need to find clinical sites on their own.
"Preceptors at these clinical sites may charge postlicensure students, so students should be encouraged to find a preceptor who is willing to allow them to shadow and gain experiential experience without cost," says Sharon Cobb, assistant professor and RN-to-BSN program director at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
When Should I Start Looking?
Prelicensure students generally do not need to worry about locating clinical placements. Schools either take care of this for students or guide them very closely. Postlicensure students, on the other hand, do need to consider their clinical placements. A postlicensure student should begin looking for a training site before they even begin their program, says Cobb.
"This will allow students to prepare the affiliation agreement with the site and the nursing program, so they will not have any delay in starting their clinical hours," Cobb adds. "During COVID-19, many sites had to stop accepting nursing students for clinical placement, which may have delayed the clinicals for some students."
How Will My Clinical Training Be Assessed in an Online Program?
Assessment for clinical training can take many different forms.
"Our school had satellite instructors and administration who were in charge of our clinicals and skills assessments," Geiser says. "We would meet once or twice a week for hands-on activities and testing related to our clinical training."
Other universities rely on technology for assessments. In these cases, instructors come to the site for in-person evaluations less frequently.
"Most programs have employed application software that will allow students to document/chart on their patients and create nursing care plans (usually for prelicensure students)," Cobb says. "In addition, faculty and students perform an evaluation of the site and the student's performance during midterm and finals."
Advice for Online Nursing Students
When it comes to selecting an online program, make sure to do your research, Cobb advises. She suggests attending information sessions and checking the program's accreditation status. Aside from clinical requirements, look into details about:
- The online learning platform used
- Program curriculum
- The school's NCLEX pass rate
"If you enjoy having flexibility in your schedule and still want some hands-on guidance, an online program may be a fantastic option," Geiser says. "I was able to work as a nursing assistant during my program, which gave me an advantage when applying for new grad positions."
Meet Our Contributors
Emma Leigh Geiser is a registered nurse, blogger at Nurse Fern, freelance writer, and financial coach. She recently celebrated 10 years in the amazing field of nursing.
Sharon Cobb, Ph.D., MSN, PHN, RN, is an RN-BSN program director and assistant professor within the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, California.
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