The rush to move learning online and maintain relationships from a distance has taught me important lessons that I’ll apply even after the pandemic is over.

By Maria Grandinetti, Ph.D., RN, BSBA, CNE

Even before the troubles of the pandemic, some weighty statistics were lurking in the background of the nursing profession. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that to fill newly created positions as well as to replace retiring nurses, the country will need 175,900 new registered nurses each year through 2029. This forecast has been top-of-mind for nurse educators who feel a sense of urgency to educate and graduate students to fill this “gap.”

When COVID pushed students off-campus many nurse educators wondered if teaching remotely would be as effective as traditional classroom teaching and learning. No matter what, though, our goals remained the same as they had been before the pandemic: to prepare their students to be safe, skilled nurses who were intent on passing the NCLEX-RN on their first attempt. Over time, the trepidation lessened. Our confidence increased as the curriculum was delivered and students learned. Feedback received from students revealed that their online learning experience was greatly enhanced when they felt a sense of community online. This was not accidental: We worked hard to create a supportive online environment, acting as coaches and mentors. Along with the support of the faculty and their community of peers, students were well aware that they were not alone.

Here are five lessons I learned as a nurse educator teaching in a pandemic and some insights to help plan future semesters when faced with similar periods of widespread disruption.

  • The best time to update outdated teaching methods is now.

On a positive note, the circumstances of the pandemic accelerated the realization that many nurse educators’ teaching methods were outdated and in need of refreshment. The upheaval brought the necessity of change, and there was no other choice than to welcome and embrace it. There was simply no time to adapt comfortably. This required educators to drive these changes nimbly, with flexibility and patience in the overall process. The respectful collaboration among educators was essential, and collective “buy-in” was critical once plans were set. Resistance and dissension would be further damaging. Developing new and/or modified ways to deliver curriculum was time-consuming and frustrating, but overall, the outcomes were reached.

  • Office hours don’t require a physical office.

The pandemic led to a loss of sense of control over simple and routine things. Steering through the disruption was improved by timely, concise, and professional communication between nurse educators. Virtual meetings, phone calls, and email messages wholly replaced the ability to stop by another person’s office to talk. Productive and collaborative discussions took place, resolving problems with common goals in mind. Nurse educators supported each other and bonded as they worked together.

The right learning resources are effective in a variety of circumstances.

We made every effort to ensure that all assigned work was for targeted learning outcomes, and not merely “busy work” for students to complete. This meant integrating additional or alternative learning resources promptly to better prepare expected nurse graduates. Knowing that real-life clinical experiences were not possible in the semester, we had to find other ways to identify students’ readiness to graduate and pass the NCLEX®.

Integrating the UWorld QBank was a powerful tool, providing students with thousands of practice questions to prepare for the NCLEX. The two self-assessments revealed information related to content warranting further review and practice. Knowing that the exam schedule would be delayed nationwide, extending the use of this and other preparatory programs was a benefit for students. In turn, schools of nursing will also benefit from a greater chance for students’ passing rates and increased board scores. These advantages will trickle down to the healthcare agencies as incoming newly hired nurses will be prepared for clinical practice.

Bridge the gap between personal and professional use of technology.

The traditional ages of undergraduate nursing students are between 18–24 years. Many of these young adults effortlessly use smartphones to traverse the Internet and engage on social media sites. For some, however, the ability to access the internet and work with computer programs is challenging. Navigating online learning platforms, obtaining literature from an online library site, scanning a document or file, and presenting online are examples of tasks that they will likely need assistance with initially. With knowledge of this in advance, nurse educators can intercede to bridge the gap between personal and educational/professional use of technology. The office of technology on campus can also be a tremendous resource for educators and students.

Relationships are essential, even over Zoom.

Nurse educators are no different from nurses who provide care to patients in acute and chronic care settings. The relationship between a nurse educator and a nursing student is similar to that between a clinical bedside nurse and a patient. Trust and respect develop between the two overtime and recurrent encounters. Nurse educators did a great job of this during a pandemic. A smile during a Zoom session, being available to students and instilling the confidence in their students that they support their success in nursing education truly made a difference.

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