mini logo

How Online Nursing Programs Work

August 13, 2020 | Staff Writers

mini logo

Reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., RN, CRNA

There are many convenient, affordable options available for students looking to pursue a nursing degree online. While nursing training generally does require some in-person commitments for clinicals and other hands-on learning, more colleges and universities today take advantage of remote teaching to reach a diverse student body through online nursing classes. Prospective nursing students who enjoy working from home and possess excellent self-starter qualities often thrive in these online programs.

On this page, we explore the main components of remote learning and what it’s like to pursue an online nursing degree versus the traditional classroom experience. The page also includes information on the essential technology requirements for these programs, descriptions of degrees available in nursing, and what to expect in terms of admissions requirements, curricula, and future career paths.

What to Expect From an Online Nursing Program

Online nursing programs offer you the same rigorous quality of education as traditional on-campus programs. Employers regard online learners highly and treat them equally as competent professionals alongside traditional on-campus graduates. There are a few key differences to consider when comparing online versus in-person formats, mostly in terms of your personal learning style and educational preferences.

One benefit for nursing students pursuing online learning is the flexibility and convenience that comes with remote classwork. Because many courses in online nursing programs are asynchronous, learners with family and career obligations can complete lectures and assignments around their busy schedules.

Online nursing programs typically require students to complete some clinical training in person. To finish the appropriate number of clinical hours for the degree, remote learners usually commute to an approved location, such as a local hospital or clinic. Online nursing programs may offer virtual clinical training, especially with the recent challenges posed by COVID-19. Check with faculty members at your prospective schools to learn more about in-person and virtual clinical training options available to you.

Online Learning Formats

Online nursing programs deliver their remote classes in synchronous and asynchronous formats. Synchronous learning happens in real time through a live feed or some other channel that requires students to engage with classes at predetermined times. Asynchronous classes, on the other hand, feature course content that students engage with on their own time.

In this way, asynchronous classes offer more flexibility for students with busy schedules but include much less interaction with other students and professors. Synchronous nursing classes online provide learners with a more traditional classroom feel, with higher levels of interaction among participants.

Technology Requirements

The main tools that online nursing students need are a computer and a reliable internet connection. Many schools offer a laptop loan program so students can complete their courses from home without having to purchase a computer. Alternatively, several nonprofit and for-profit companies offer refurbished laptops at more affordable prices.

Nursing students also need an assortment of items to participate fully and safely in their clinical training. Each school provides its nursing students with a list of the necessary equipment before they begin their clinicals.

Support for Online Learners

Distance students typically have access to the same resources as on-campus learners. Schools usually list available remote resources, such as personal counseling, academic advising, and tutoring services on the distance learning homepage. Depending on how invested a school is in its online learning programs, students may also have access to additional resources specifically for distance education.

Online nursing students can locate a variety of helpful resources with useful tips for new and returning remote learners. NurseJournal.org offers well-being and strategic tips that apply to both remote students in nursing and outside majors.

Online RN-to-BSN Programs

The BSN is a four-year degree that positions remote learners for a variety of rewarding careers in nursing. Most schools require bachelor’s in nursing students to complete approximately 120 credits for graduation. The degree best suits students with a serious interest in pursuing a job in nursing upon graduation or further education in a specialized area. BSN degree-holders typically pursue careers like nurse manager, health educator, and critical care nurse.

The most common way for nursing students to earn a BSN degree online is through an RN-to-BSN program. This type of bridge program is ideal for working RNs, as it allows them to earn a BSN degree on a more flexible schedule. Typically, students can complete an online RN-to-BSN program within 18 to 24 months. They must already hold a diploma in nursing or an ADN, and should hold current RN licensure within their state of residence.

Online BSN degree-seekers can expect to complete coursework in psychology, statistics, basics of mental health, community health nursing, or pharmacology. While didactic courses may be completed online, generally a BSN requires 400 hours of clinical experience to be completed at a local hospital. Working RNs completing an online RN-to-BSN are typically able to fulfill clinical requirements at the hospital in which they work. Learn more about gaining clinical experience as an online student here.

Prospective online RN-to-BSN nursing students typically need to submit their official transcripts and an online application for consideration, as well as proof of nursing licensure and a criminal background check. Learners might also need to submit a personal essay describing their interest in the field, a list of professional or academic references, a resume, and proof of related volunteer experience.

Online MSN Programs

The MSN degree best serves advanced students interested in pursuing work in a specialized area of nursing or leadership roles. Common concentration areas for master’s in nursing learners include gerontology, midwifery, nurse anesthetist, and orthopedics. The length of these programs depends on the applicant’s level of education and nursing training when they enter the program.

Depending on their previous educational experience, incoming master’s students might want to apply specifically to a bridge program like an RN-to-MSN, ADN-to-MSN, or ASN-to-MSN. Application requirements for the MSN include letters of recommendation, a bachelor’s degree in nursing (though other fields may be accepted), and GRE scores.

The traditional online MSN for incoming students with a bachelor’s degree in nursing typically takes two years to complete. The number of required credits varies among programs, but learners can expect to complete approximately 35-40 credits for graduation. Required courses vary among schools and specialty areas. MSN degree-seekers can expect to complete core master’s classes, such as theoretical foundations in nursing, healthcare policy, and disease prevention.

Online DNP Programs

Nursing students who wish to seek out the top administrative, research, or teaching positions in nursing often pursue a DNP degree. The doctor of nursing practice degree is the highest credential in the field. Online DNP programs often take students 2-3 years to complete, depending on their level of experience upon entering the program.

Online learners can choose between BSN-to-DNP or MSN-to-DNP tracks. Students who already possess a master’s degree in nursing finish the program more quickly than incoming bachelor’s degree-holders. MSN students pursuing the DNP can expect to complete 35-40 credits for graduation.

The majority of your DNP coursework comes from your specialized track or concentration area. Depending on the concentration, DNP learners complete classes in executive leadership, health policy, technology, public health, and adult-gerontology.

Online DNP programs typically require applicants to possess at least a BSN from an accredited school. Competitive applicants usually need a 3.0 or higher GPA and excellent GRE scores.

Reviewed by:

Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., RN, CRNA, CNE, COI
Expert Reviewer: Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., RN, CRNA, CNE, COI

Dr. Deborah Weatherspoon is an advanced practice nurse. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She is currently a university nursing educator and has authored multiple publications. She has also presented at national and international levels about medical and leadership issues. She enjoys walking, reading, traveling to new places, and spending time with her family.

Advertisement NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.

mini icon

Popular Resources

Resources and articles written by professionals and other Nurses like you.


Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) vs. Registered Nurses (RN)

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) vs. Registered Nurses (RN)

September 23, 2020   |   Staff Writers

In this guide, learn more about which occupation would serve you best and how nurses can take advantage of online bachelor's in nursing programs to advance in their career.

What is a Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary?

What is a Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary?

September 23, 2020   |   Staff Writers

Nurse practitioners (NPs) rank among the highest paid nurses, alongside nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives.