For the past 14 years, enrollment in distance education, including online courses, at higher education institutions in the United States has steadily increased. Between fall 2015 and fall 2016, more than 6.3 million students were enrolled in a distance education course. During that same time, nearly one third (31.6%) of all higher education students took at least one distance education course. Approximately one quarter (14.9%) of those students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, whereas 16.7% took a combination of distance education and on-campus courses (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). The exact number of nursing students enrolled in distance education or online courses is unknown; however, the number of nursing online courses and programs indicates a substantial number of nursing students enrolled in distance education.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2018), 43.5% (n = 310) of generic baccalaureate programs, 86% (n = 470) of bachelor's to master's in nursing programs, 85% (n = 315) of nurse practitioner programs, 77% (n = 99) of post-master's programs with a research focus, and 95% (n = 307) of post-master's Doctor of Nursing Practice programs were delivered fully or partially online. Although the number of nursing faculty who taught in these programs is unknown, in 2018 less than half (44%) of higher education faculty taught online (Jaschik & Lederman, 2018). Although this represents a 14% increase since 2013, the need for more online nurse educators with formal preparation is clear.
More importantly, the need for formal preparation extends to nurse educators who foster the ongoing development of nurses in clinical practice. Specialty certification in nursing professional development includes being prepared to use learning management systems (LMS) to deliver professional development programs (American Nurses Credentialing Center, 2017). Collectively, this indicates nurse educators, regardless of the setting in which they work or are preparing to work, must receive formal instruction about teaching online. The educational innovation presented here describes a pedagogical approach to prepare future nurse educators enrolled in a master's-level nurse educator program. The innovation prepared nurses to develop, design, and deliver online education, which is a form of distance education, in academic and clinical settings.
A 33-credit Master of Science in Nursing Education program at a public university in the southeastern United States is an online accelerated program. Courses are asynchronous and 7 weeks long to provide flexibility for working nurses. The first course includes learning theory, curriculum, instruction, and assessment of learning. These topics thread through two additional courses, including a 3-credit course devoted to teaching and learning in distance education. The goal of the online course is to ensure every program graduate is prepared to develop a curriculum and design and deliver an online module.
The educational innovation consists of a two-part course assignment. The first part requires students to develop a curriculum for a 1-hour online learning module. The second part requires students to design an online module in an LMS and deliver, or teach, the module. With the accelerated time frame for instruction and the need for application-level learning outcomes, instructional scaffolding, applied learning theory, and engagement theory guided the educational innovation.
Combining Scaffolding and Applied Learning Enhances Engagement
Instructional scaffolding was identified by Bruner (1975) as linking multiple teaching strategies to form a support system for a learner. The support can be beneficial when learning complex content within a short time frame. Through scaffolding, each smaller achievable activity intentionally builds toward a larger overall assignment and leads to learner independence (Coombs, 2018). For this educational innovation, a scaffold approach supported students as they learned to develop curricula.
Fisher and Mittelman (2013) argued that applied learning can successfully occur online with intentional course design that includes communication, active and collaborative learning, reflective practices, and critical thinking. Applied learning affords learners an opportunity to integrate theory, ideas, and skills into new contexts (University of North Carolina Wilmington, n.d.). This extends learning in authentic environments and prepares students for real-world experience (National Society for Experiential Education, 2009). Principles of applied learning guided student design and delivery of the online module.
Kearsley and Schneiderman (1998) explained that the fundamental idea of their engagement theory for technology-based teaching and learning is that “students must be meaningfully engaged in learning activities through interaction with others and worthwhile tasks” (p. 20). Using a combination of scaffolding and applied learning experiences, this education innovation engaged nurse educator students with content, other students, and faculty to develop, design, and deliver online modules, which is a worthwhile task for a future nurse educator.
Faculty provided students with guidelines for the two-part course assignment at the beginning of the class. The guidelines included the purpose of the assignment, required content for the curriculum map and online module, and the grading criteria with rubrics. Students were encouraged to refer back to the guidelines throughout curriculum development and module design to guide their efforts and their peer reviews. Students were able to use the grading criteria and rubrics as a checklist prior to submission to ensure inclusion of all required content and design features.
Students self-selected the focus of their 1-hour online module. Through scaffolded weekly blog activities, students incrementally developed curriculum maps. A map consisted of a guiding theory, learning objectives, a content outline, instructional strategies, resources, and a strategy for assessing learning. In weeks 2 to 5 of the 7-week course, students wrote a draft of a specific portion of their curriculum map and posted it to the blog. Then, students engaged in peer review and provided constructive feedback to at least one peer via the blog. Students were encouraged to provide evidence-based feedback and suggestions for their peers. Faculty provided individual and collective constructive feedback to students. Students used the peer and faculty feedback to refine the section of the map. Through collaboration, students were able to develop, revise, and finalize a section of the curriculum map each week. By the end of week 5, students had a complete curriculum map. Course faculty graded the map using a standardized rubric, and students used the map to design online modules. The scaffolded blog activities facilitated student engagement with the content, other students, and faculty.
Design an Online Module
To create an authentic learning experience, students needed full access to the design tools in the LMS. Because students could not have design privileges to the actual course, a second course—a design sandbox—was established in the LMS. Faculty enrolled students with instructor access into the sandbox. Students had access to the sandbox for the duration of the course. At the beginning of the course, students entered the sandbox and claimed a learning module. Students claimed their module by editing the title of an existing module. This use of a simple tool function in the LMS increased student confidence before they eventually progressed to using more complex tools. Then, faculty reminded and encouraged students throughout the course to experiment with LMS tools and, eventually, design the module based on their maps. Faculty provided students with two pillars of support for designing in the sandbox, including evidence-based teaching and learning principles and module development resources. Students were required to reference evidence-based learning theories and frameworks, instructional design models, and quality indicators for their design decisions. Resources for this required support were provided in the course. The building of the learning module was supported through LMS-specific tutorial videos, a designated discussion forum for design questions, and faculty-created tutorial videos. The design of the online learning module in the sandbox served as one application of the curriculum map and as the focused project for an authentic environment—a critical component in engagement theory.
Delivery of the Online Module
In the final week of the course, students further engaged in applied learning through a module showcase activity. Students delivered, or facilitated learning in, the online learning module they designed. They also served in the role of learner while completing learning activities in three of their classmates' modules. At the conclusion of the showcase, students served in two evaluation roles. Using faculty-provided guidelines, they evaluated peer modules from the perspective of a nurse educator and a learner. Students were guided to provide comments regarding design strengths, areas for enhancement, and suggestions for overall improvement. Providing guidance to students for their reviews helps them to focus on specific, quality features and to provide evidence-based feedback. Without such guidance, students often provide generic comments such as “Good job!” or “I liked your module.” Students used the resultant data in the continuous improvement process. Throughout the showcase, students continued to engage with content, students, and faculty.
Effectiveness of Innovation
A total of 110 students enrolled in the distance education course between summer 2017 and summer 2018. Two nursing faculty with extensive experience teaching online taught 11 sections of the course. Each student completed the two-part assignment. Faculty assessed student learning using the assignment-specific grading criteria and standardized rubrics provided to the students at the beginning of the class. For the curriculum map assignment, appropriateness of the guiding theory, format of learning objectives, completeness of the content outline, selection of evidence-based instructional strategies and resources, plan to assess learning, and alignment of the map sections were assessed. Adherence to universal design for learning principles, and course design that included a captioned welcome video, module overview, learning objectives, learning activities, and assessment strategy were evaluated for the module design component of the assignment. Student and faculty reflections were also used to evaluate effectiveness of the innovation.
Rubric scores for the 60-point curriculum map assignment ranged from 36 to 60, with a mean of 54.75 (91%). The benchmark indicating effectiveness of the scaffold approach was a group mean score of 80%, the passing score for a graduate-level course at the university. The results indicate that scaffolding was an effective pedagogical approach to teach students curriculum development. Analysis of individual scores on this assignment found that 95 of 110 (86%) earned a passing score of 80%. Ten students did not meet the passing score threshold for the assignment.
Rubric scores for the 35-point online module design assignment ranged from 18 to 35, with a mean of 32.59 (93%). Again, a group mean score of 80% served as a benchmark and was exceeded. This indicates that applied learning was an effective approach to teach students how to design and deliver an online module. Although more (95%; n = 105) students earned a passing score on this assignment compared with the curriculum map assignment, five students did not earn a minimum of 80%.
For a student, the constructive feedback received, as well as feedback provided to peers, was a critical component to develop a curriculum map. Feedback served as an effective way to clarify content and brainstorm evidence-based solutions collaboratively. It also encouraged students to practice the art of providing feedback, which is an essential educator function.
With regard to designing the online module, students noted the importance of the designated discussion forum for sandbox questions where students and faculty engaged with one another to assist with tasks and to clarify key points. Additionally, the closed-captioned tutorial videos benefited students who chose to review the video on mute in order to not disturb others. Students desired more instruction on digital literacy, specifically copyright for multimedia and Web resources, to ensure proper use in their modules. Overall, student comments indicated benefits to experimenting in the sandbox, although the 7-week course time frame was challenging.
During delivery of the online modules, experiencing the modules as both learner and educator provided valuable insight for students. This dual role provided unique perspectives to curriculum development, design, and delivery. Although evaluation data were provided to students for continuous improvement, the course length did not allow enough time to develop a plan for continuous improvement.
The instructional strategies in the distance education course prepared the student—a future educator—to develop, design, and deliver an online learning module; the sandbox provided a safe place to practice these skills. Students reported using elements of the online learning module created in the course in their professional work settings, providing further evidence of application to an authentic environment.
The evaluation data demonstrate the effectiveness of the instructional strategies; faculty observations support the quantitative results. Faculty recognized the power of scaffolding with peer and faculty engagement and review as there were marked improvements from the initial blog post to the complete curriculum map that students submitted for evaluation. Intentional sharing of evidence and ideas, as well as constructive questioning between students, enriched communication and collaboration. These observations of the faculty align with the evidence supporting the importance of engagement in student learning.
With the proliferation of online education in nursing education and professional staff development, all future nurse educators must be prepared to develop, design, and deliver instruction online. The intentional course design of one online distance education course, including instructional scaffolding of an assignment and applied learning in an LMS, facilitated student engagement and effectively prepared students to teach online. This educational innovation is adaptable for other programs and settings because scaffolding of assignments can be customized and applied learning can be replicated in diverse LMS.
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2018). 2017–2018 enrollment and graduations in baccalaureate and graduate programs in nursing. Washington, DC: Author.
- American Nurses Credentialing Center. (2017). Test content outline: Nursing professional development board certification examination. Retrieved from https://www.nursingworld.org/~4acbba/globalassets/certification/certification-specialty-pages/resources/test-content-outlines/nursingprofessionaldevelopment-tco.pdf
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- University of North Carolina Wilmington. (n.d.). Applied learning at University of North Carolina Wilmington. Retrieved from https://uncw.edu/appliedlearning/about.html