Elaina Mahlan, RN, MSN/Ed., FCN, is a full-time faculty member with Kaplan University School of Nursing. With 10 years of clinical experience, specializing in oncology nursing, Mahlan became a college-level educator in 2007. At Kaplan University, she pursues her passion for online education, designing and delivering courses for the School of Nursing’s RN to BSN program, as well as serving as a faculty mentor for new faculty and MSN-Education practicum students. Mahlan is a member of Kaplan’s Phi Rho Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau and the Nurses Christian Fellowship. In addition, she is a reviewer for the Journal of Instructional Research.
How did you first get involved in nursing?
I come from a very a long line of nurses, and I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with illness. Those experiences were so powerful that they really helped spark my interest in nursing. I began my formal nursing education at a local community college and did an internship on a local hospital’s oncology unit. After graduation, I worked on that same unit for 11 years and obtained certification in my specialty. When I went back to school to get my Master’s degree, that’s when I really began pursuing my first love, which is education. The educational role was always my favorite part of nursing practice. I’ve worked for the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University, and now Kaplan University School of Nursing.
All of the schools you mentioned offer primarily online degrees. What is it that intrigues you so much about online education?
I’ve always strongly believed in the potential of online education. As it became more commonplace, I wanted to be on the front lines of that educational transition. I like that these programs can help educate adults who are already in the workforce and don’t have the time to take classes in a traditional format. I also think that proprietary education allows institutions to adapt remarkably quickly. For example, if we need to change the curriculum, or adapt to student needs, or adapt to the world around us, it can happen very quickly. That is essential in the Information Age. In addition, the online environment brings together people from different places. That adds an extra element of diversity to the learning environment, which is important within a global society.
What are some of the things that students need to adapt to when they first enter the online nursing program?
Two primary adjustments occur at the beginning of an online learning endeavor. The first is that the student themselves is the driver of the journey. We don’t treat students like receptacles to be filled with our knowledge through primarily passive methods like lecture. We engage them with active and self-directed methods because we understand adult learners. These are individuals with unique life experiences who desire learning that can be immediately applied to the real world.
The second adjustment involves adapting to a learning environment that employs reading and writing as its primary communication method. Many new online students have concerns that they lack the skills to engage in higher learning under these conditions. But online learning endeavors actually develop and hone students’ reading and writing skills in a safe environment. That’s music to the ears of employers who consistently tell us that written communication skills are a huge need within their institutions.
You can easily understand how a degree in graphic design can translate into online education, but how does a hands-on profession like nursing translate?
Many levels of nursing education lend themselves quite effectively to the online environment; RN to BSN, master’s, and PhD programs for example. These all require reflecting on phenomenon occurring in the healthcare environment; they don’t necessarily require a clinical learning experience. Other nursing programs, like associate level, entry-to-practice Bachelor’s, and NP/DNP programs do require clinical learning experiences. These are accommodated by hybrid programs. A hybrid program allows students to complete the academic portion of the curriculum online, and the clinical portion of the curriculum on the ground in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
What does a typical day look like for students enrolled in the online RN to BSN degree program?
The program is so diverse and flexible that there really isn’t a typical day for students. The design of the learning experience has moved away from the concept of the instructor being the “sage on the stage” with a captive audience. It has shifted to an experience where self-directed students are engaging directly with the material in a more active learning environment. The instructor serves as a facilitator and guide. Our job is to provide a buffet of relevant content, highlight the essential parts of that content menu, and then whet the appetite for that content on a unit-to-unit basis. Students read or view the content and then we provide a series of opportunities to draw upon their learning and demonstrate mastery.
Classroom testing is not as commonplace in online education as it is in a traditional classroom. Testing is only utilized when there is a particular need for it. More often, students develop writing skills to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject. This might be accomplished by writing papers, dialoging on discussion boards, or engaging with case studies. We want to offer creative ways for students to practice with the content so that they can demonstrate mastery. The typical course in the program is 10 weeks long. We have a set of shared objectives that we are heading for in terms of mastery. Week by week we are trying to assist students on that journey.
If you had your druthers, what would you tweak or change about the program?
Any healthy educational program is continually adapting itself to meet the needs of students, employers, and society. What excites me about online education in the proprietary environment is that we can identify needs or opportunities and adapt rapidly. Our instructors at Kaplan enjoy the chance to continuously participate in the evolution of our program. We don’t pine away over changes that need to be made; we are change agents and we embrace ownership of our curriculum.
Online education is still quite new and many people – for better or for worse – view online degree programs as inferior to traditional career programs. How do you feel about that comparison and how do you work to combat that stigma?
Of course any stigma surrounding online education is a concern. But people need to understand that it’s still a relatively new and growing medium. As it develops and becomes more commonplace, people will grow more comfortable with it. I believe nursing is particularly poised to embrace online education. There is already a well-publicized national nursing shortage, particularly a shortage of nurses with advanced degrees. But nursing is a round-the-clock profession. Employers realize that if they are going to require that their nurses go back to school, they need to ensure those nurses are able to continue working during their studies; otherwise employers would be hard-pressed to care for their patients. As demands in the nursing profession shift, online educators realize that society needs a different way for nurses to pursue lifelong learning. That said, just because healthcare providers are between a rock and a hard place for nursing staff, that doesn’t absolve online education from academic rigor. At Kaplan University, we believe that our program’s commitment to competency-based education actually better prepares our nurses for the next level of practice in the working world. In a competency-based education program, we investigate what employers are looking for from their employees; then we figure out how those skills can be developed in the classroom.
From your experience, what are some of the things that students learn in a nursing program that you wouldn’t read about in the program description?
There are really two nuggets that come to mind. The first is that people are more alike than they are different. Of course, humans aren’t all the same. In nursing education, we get the chance to explore human diversity. We embrace respect for our differences among cultures, subcultures, races and ethnicities, and various socioeconomic levels. When students engage in the clinical or classroom setting, they encounter people that are different from themselves in many ways. But students inevitably cycle back to the foundational concept that, no matter how different we are, we all share common goals like quality of life, and harmony with the world around us.
The second nugget of learning that students pick up on is that conflict isn’t inherently bad. In fact, conflict can bring the best ideas to the surface depending on how people behave during the conflict. In the nursing profession, there are a lot of opportunities to encounter conflict. Nursing education provides a guided and safe opportunity to identify conflict, explore conflict, and navigate conflict successfully. If we value human diversity, we should expect and welcome conflict because it brings more stakeholder interests and knowledge into the information pool from which decisions are made.
Do you have any advice for students who are entering the RN to BSN program or a similar program?
You should start off by being very clear about your goals and motivations. People often enter the program very passionate with a specific focus. It is important for you to remember that passion and motivation and keep it continuously cooking on the backburner of your mind; it will be important when you encounter difficult moments during the process. Second, be patient with yourself and with the process. Nursing education is a lifelong pursuit; no one is going to master everything overnight. Continuously ask questions. Never be intimidated by a lack of knowledge in a particular area or skill. No matter what experience you may or may not have, there is always something you can learn from others and something that you can teach them.