In-Person vs. Online Nursing Programs: Which Is Right for Me?
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Nursing students can choose between in-person and online programs. Consider these advantages and disadvantages before deciding which is right for you.
Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?
If you're thinking about completing a bachelor's degree in nursing or making the jump to a master's program, you'll want to assess the pros and cons of online vs. in-person nursing classes. While the technology needed to offer an online nursing program was available before 2020, it became more popular during the pandemic.
The online option has helped to increase enrollment, which could potentially help fill the nursing shortage gap. At the same time, it has created challenges for students and instructors as they negotiate obstacles with virtual and distance learning.
We asked three of our nursing and healthcare experts who have experience in both virtual and in-person nursing programs for their perspectives. Review these factors when choosing between in-person vs. online nursing.
Similarities and Differences Between In-Person and Online Nursing Programs
Both online and in-person nursing classes must meet the same criteria for accreditation. Accreditation for nursing programs is crucial as it demonstrates the program meets quality standards. It is also essential for a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) student to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for their state registered nurse (RN) license or to attend a master's nursing program.
Accredited nursing programs must offer specific coursework and an adequate number of clinical hours in the field. Some online nursing programs are completely remote, while others require the student to attend clinical labs for the instructors to observe their skills. All online programs will have clinical requirements that can be met in the community.
One of the variables between online vs. in-person nursing classes is the cost of the program. Most in-person programs have inflexible coursework schedules that do not allow students to complete the program more quickly. This can impact the cost of the program.
Some online programs are a less expensive option. Additionally, the coursework is flexible, which can allow the student to work while studying. This can help support the student's budget and contribute to lowering the immediate cost.
Advantages of Online Nursing Programs
Online programs are available to BSN and graduate nursing students; you can attend online nursing programs to work toward your nursing degree. But, beyond that advantage, are there others?
Lisa Eagans, MSN, RNC-MNN, has 20 years of experience in healthcare and teaching. She finds her students have greater flexibility and balance while attending an online nursing program.
"In-person nursing programs don't always offer the kind of flexibility that's needed for adults that are already working full time, but want to upskill as a nurse and further their education," she says.
Students who must also work full time can weave their coursework and study into their schedule in a way that makes sense for them, instead of trying to weave work around a set in-person class schedule.
Other factors that can make an online nursing program more flexible include:
- Greater work-life balance, especially for caregivers and those working
- Recorded video lectures that can be watched several times
- Online tests and quizzes that can be taken around your schedule and scored immediately
- Different locations to attend classes from anywhere with an internet connection
- Easier scheduling for virtual group work
Different Learning Formats
Linda Joyce Gunn, Ph.D., has taught in traditional and nontraditional settings and has served in many settings at Western Governors University where she has been since 2005. Gunn believes one of the biggest benefits of an online program is the ability to move through the nursing program at your own pace.
"... you have the support of a community of care that will help the student be successful whether it is with the program mentor, instructor, writing center, student success center, and others to make sure the student has the tools to learn, grow, and become successful," she says.
To accomplish online learning for nursing students, students have access to different learning formats. Videos satisfy visual and auditory learning styles and enable the student to speed up, slow down, or repeat certain lessons. Other learning options include:
- Online discussion groups
- Slide decks available to download
- Audio-only podcasts you can listen to while driving
- Integration of digital tools to connect students and teachers in a social network
- Student presentations through online video, slides, or lecture
Online nursing programs may cost the same as an in-person program or might be more affordable. Students must compare the costs between programs.
For example, one online program 200 miles from your home may seem much more cost-effective, but it requires students to attend clinical labs during the semester on campus. This commute can contribute to the cost.
However, overall, online nursing programs may cost less if you aren't paying for room and board or transportation.
Featured Online RN-to-BSN in Nursing Programs
Disadvantages of Online Nursing Programs
Students who complete an online nursing program will have a degree they can use nearly anywhere in the country. However, there are a few disadvantages to attending an online program.
Requires High Self-Motivation and Independence
Students need to be self-disciplined to attend and complete an online nursing program. If self-motivation and time management is a personal challenge, then an online learning program may not be your best choice.
"As for disadvantages, online programs are best suited for students who are self-starters and self-motivated," Eagans says, "meaning this kind of learning format could prove to be challenging for those who struggle with self-discipline and keeping the momentum going when it comes to deadlines."
Additional skills needed for students attending an online nursing program include:
- Basic technical and computer skills
- Familiarity with technological problems and how to troubleshoot
- Ability to research and find the necessary materials online
- High level of internal motivation to succeed
- Independence to seek help when needed
- Ability to set and commit to clear expectations for study time and coursework
- Strong organizational skills to keep work, school, and life in order
The very nature of online learning often leaves students feeling disconnected from classmates and instructors. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN, is an educator, freelance author, and editor. She has taught in traditional and online nursing programs across several states.
"In my opinion, the biggest disadvantage can be feelings of being disconnected from the program and from peers. Online schooling can easily make students feel isolated," she says.
Gunn believes that students can seek out and find ways of connecting with other students, even with distance learning. Students can find ways to engage with other students online, or find students in the same or similar nursing programs in their geographical area.
However, some students may thrive on face-to-face interaction and may not do well in a strictly online nursing program.
Access to Technology
While many take technology for granted, to successfully complete an online nursing program you must have access to the necessary software and hardware. Nursing programs typically provide students with a list of computer requirements needed to complete the program.
Students who are not technologically savvy can receive help in their local area to learn how to use the programs before classes start.
The necessity for appropriate technology also rests with the online nursing program. The program must have designed the instructional material in a way that works well with online learning and offers the necessary technical support for students.
Advantages of In-Person Nursing Programs
As you consider how to choose between in-person vs. online nursing, take time to examine how the advantages of an in-person program may also fit your needs.
Eagans appreciates the advantage of face-to-face interactions in an in-person nursing program.
"One of the biggest benefits of a traditional in-person nursing program is that students are able to get that in-person connection and oftentimes are able to network with their peers a little easier," she says.
Rhoads finds her students benefit from better peer support and relationships, which stem from a greater ability to professionally network with nurses and other students. Networking also helps students develop stronger relationships with their instructors. This is helpful when students need letters of recommendation for jobs or a master's program.
While online nursing students have the advantage of immediate scoring on quizzes and tests, Rhoads points out that students and professors can benefit from face-to-face feedback.
"The benefits of a traditional in-person nursing program are the ability to seek immediate feedback for both the students and the professors," she says. "When teaching a class, it is easier to see if students are not understanding material than it is online. Also, students can ask questions and receive immediate responses."
Additionally, real-time responses can contribute to collaborative learning in the classroom. In-person programs allow students to work together more easily, so they actively learn with and from their peers.
Colleges and universities have developed many resources to help students be successful in their education. Many of these resources may not be available online. Also, online resources are not as easily accessed, especially for an adult learner.
On-campus resources can include writing labs, library research assistance, counseling, advocacy services, career center, social groups, and accessibility services. Some programs do offer online tutoring or office hours with professors.
However, while technology has expanded the reach of educational services, face-to-face interactions have significant benefits. They help establish trust in a relationship, boost active participation, and enhance conflict resolution.
Disadvantages of In-Person Nursing Programs
Students who attend an in-person nursing program may experience greater interpersonal connections with their peers and professors. Yet, there are a few disadvantages to consider in how to choose between in-person vs. online nursing.
In-person programs follow an inflexible course schedule. They may not meet the needs of working students or others who are caring for someone else at home. Gunn recognizes the challenges that traditional in-person students face.
"The disadvantage for students in a face-to-face environment is travel, life, job, and other obligations that may not allow the student to be present (i.e. both physically and emotionally)," she says.
Nursing programs can be expensive. Students who must repeat a class because they were unable to attend or did not get a passing grade, increase their costs. The inflexibility of the program may also cause a student to drop out of the program, leaving them with the expenses and no degree.
Some programs offer nursing mentors to in-person students to give them an accountability partner. Mentors can help students develop creative strategies to overcome the obstacles they face.
Nursing students are often short on time. Many are working outside of their course and clinical obligations. This leaves little time for other activities, including commuting back-and-forth to class.
A commute to class may take 30 minutes one way or longer with driving, parking, and walking to class. This adds an hour or more each day to an already packed schedule. In the past, traditional students have found ways of using this time. This may include listening to lectures on tape, dictating notes, or watching lectures on a commuter train.
Choosing Between In-Person and Online Nursing Programs
Nursing students must take the time to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of online vs. in-person nursing classes. There is no one best decision that meets the needs of all students. "I think that a prospective nursing student should consider how they best learn," Rhoads says.
Rhoads went on to advise students, "Personally, for a student who is attending school to become a nurse … for the first time, I recommend an in-person program. Nursing is a tactile skill and critical thinking discipline which are simply better developed in an in-person environment."
Also, many nursing programs are moving toward a hybrid model. So an online program could have in-person components like a lab requirement or meeting on campus a few times a semester. Likewise, many in-person settings are increasingly relying on technology. For example, many textbooks are digital, and tests for an in-person course may still be taken online outside of class time.
Students need to weigh their options to find the program that best fits their needs. In addition to the advantages and disadvantages of each program, additional factors students may want to consider include:
- Program cost
- Available financial aid
- Location of the program
- Faculty/student ratio
- Faculty approachability
- Flexibility of the schedule (e.g., can you go part time or accelerate the schedule to meet your needs)
- Clinical hours requirements and placement assistance
- Format of online classes (synchronous or asynchronous)
- Class size (meaningful interaction with the professor can drop in larger classes)
- NCLEX examination pass rate
- School ranking, such as for RN programs, based on academic quality, affordability, and reputation
- Classes to prepare students in nursing specialty areas
- Job interview and placement coaching
Meet Our Contributors
Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D.
Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a nurse educator and freelance author and editor. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and a master's in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Rhoads earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University. Her clinical background includes surgical-trauma adult critical care and interventional radiology procedures. Rhoads has taught BSN, RN-BSN, and graduate nursing programs in Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Lisa Eagans, MSN, RNC-MNN
Lisa Eagans, MSN, RNC-MNN, has more than 20 years of experience serving in healthcare and is now the state director of prelicensure nursing for Western Governors University Indiana. Eagans is a lifelong learner who started her career as a CNA. She now has her master of science in nursing and plans to begin her doctorate soon.
Linda Joyce Gunn, Ph.D., CPHRM, ACC
Linda Joyce Gunn is a senior instructor in the College of Health Professions for Western Governors University. She earned a BS in operations management from Indiana University, MBA in finance from University of Notre Dame, and Ph.D. in organization development from Union Institute and University. Gunn has worked in management positions for both private and not-for-profit organizations with her most recent experience in a 600-bed hospital as director of risk management/physician services. She has taught in both traditional and nontraditional settings over the years.
Page last reviewed July 5, 2022
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