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Nursing programs go online as research blossoms

Flexible methods of study are attracting a wider pool of future nurses. Natasha Egan reports.

The future of university nursing programs will give students the flexibility to study online, fast-track their way to registration and get involved in research early on in their studies.

Pending accreditation, the University of Southern Queensland plans to introduce a new nursing course next year delivered in a blended mode they call optimally online.

The course will have the same skills development and placement requirements as the on-campus course but with a more flexible delivery method.

The Dean of the Faculty of Sciences Professor Janet Verbyla said that nowadays online courses included the capacity to have "a face-to-face element" with applications such as Skype which meant the experiences could be very similar to the traditional on-campus delivery.

"The technology is not the critical thing, it's what you use the technology to deliver, and we deliver a very good quality supportive programs for which we have national recognition", Verbyla said.

"In fact, I think that one of the most important things is we're not obsessed with the technology, we are obsessed with what the technology enables us to deliver, to provide that accessible and successful higher education experience."

While USQ has always been a significant external distance educator the Verbyla said they were proactive in adapting their programs to maximise accessibility. Nowadays most people expected things to be somewhat online, she said.

The course is aimed at non-school leavers or slightly older people who have family and work commitments because it will be easier for them to do it in blended mode.

"They [programs] are accessible and they're flexible so we therefore engage student groups that are perhaps sometimes under-represented at other universities," Verbyla said

Meanwhile at the University of Queensland, the first students in a new graduate-entry nursing course are ready to finish after 16 months of study.

Students doing the Master of Nursing Studies (Graduate Entry) can fast-track their way to registration by continuing their studies over the summer semester and then choose, if they wish, to articulate into a PhD.

Of the 22 students who began in autumn 2010, seven took the fast-track option and are graduating now. Another five from that intake are due to finish next semester and over 40 students entered this year.

Program director Pauline Varghese said the course was intensive and even though students were informed beforehand some dropped out when they realised it was not possible to study and work full-time.

Varghese said the program was designed for people working in another career who were interested in nursing, and that it had the added attraction of being a masters degree.

"It's very attractive because students come out with a qualification that is perhaps more in keeping with how they view themselves if they've already been functioning at a fairly high level in a career," Varghese said.

This was the case for one of the programs first graduates, Samantha Zurvas. Swapping a successful job as a marketing analyst for a newspaper on the Gold Coast for her long-time ambition of being a nurse, the 24-year-old said she chose the program because it allowed her to combine her previous qualifications and get a Masters in Nursing in a relatively short time.

"I've always been interested in the health care field. "I even started a nursing degree in 2004 but decided to take a year off," she said.

On returning to university in 2005, Zurvas didn't choose to continue with nursing, instead taking on a Bachelor of Social Science. However, she often wondered why she made that decision, never losing interest in one day becoming a nurse.

This led her to seek out nursing programs and come across the UQ Master of Nursing Studies (Graduate Entry) program.

"I had been looking for a long time for a program that could give me the amount of clinical learning I felt I needed to work confidently as a nurse," she said.

There is a research component in second year where students put together a proposal based on their placement area. They do the literature review but not the actual research. But Varghese said the component "almost" gave students the capacity to enter directly into their PhD.

She said UQ had a couple of students who were pursuing the research from their proposals. Some of the institutions where the students were placed welcomed the research follow-up because they also recognised the need identified in the student proposals.

"We don't know what will come of that but there has been some interest."

Varghese also said responses from institutions where students did their placements "have been very positive" and they had received "absolutely no negative feedback". She said UQ saw the course as a success and expected it to be permanently locked-in.

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