Loyola ranks high for online program

For 10 years, Loyola University has been quietly building up its online nursing program for graduate students, rolling out different components year by year and conducting trial runs until everything was just right.

So in the past three years, when U.S. News and World Report started ranking online degree programs, the publication twice saw fit to list Loyola’s program as the sixth best in the country.

U.S. News uses broad criteria to rank the 95 online nursing programs nationwide. They are judged on their selectivity in admissions, use of technology, student support services and also faculty credentials — a category in which Loyola does exceptionally well. Roughly 92 percent of Loyola nursing faculty have doctorate degrees in the specialties they teach.

Warren Hebert received an online master’s degree in nursing from Loyola last year. This year, he is working on an online doctorate.

As the chief executive officer of the Homecare Association of Louisiana, a Lafayette nonprofit that advocates for home health care providers, Hebert said the degree should help him better teach, write and speak on behalf of the nursing industry.

“Our health care systems are in need of transformational change. The costs are unsustainable,” he said. “When it comes to health care outcomes, we are 35th in the world, but we spend more than any other country.”

Mary Oriol, interim director of Loyola’s School of Nursing, believes the program is considered one of the nation’s elite because of the small class sizes and what she described as the intimate approach the school takes with students.

“We are a Jesuit organization. We take much more into consideration other than just teaching classes,” Oriol said. “We take care of the individual; we give more attention to the students than a much larger program would.”

Whatever the reasons behind Loyola’s success, it’s arrived at a time when the familiar model of graduate students spending hours a day on campus for two or three years before earning an advanced degree is changing. Students across the country have more options for online learning than they did a decade ago, with many choosing to work full time while taking classes nights, weekends or whenever their schedule permits.

The traditional classroom setting also is being threatened with the emergence of education providers such as edX, a partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which the two schools decided to make university-level courses available for free online. Programs like edX are known as a MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

MOOCs are looked at as an alternative path toward attaining advanced-level skills and high-paying jobs for students without having to pay tuition or earn a traditional college degree.

A 2011 Sloan Foundation survey found that the number of college students taking one or more online courses has exceeded 6 million and nearly one-third of all higher education students are taking at least one online course.

Education leaders predict that more and more students are going to demand the convenience of online education and will judge institutions on how available online programs are and how easily those credits can be transferred between schools.

In that context, it’s important for universities to put together strong and desirable online programs.

Oriol, head of the nursing program, said Loyola likes to keep student-teacher ratios small with between 15 and 24 students in each class. In classes where students are required to work in a hospital or clinic settings, students are paired with a preceptor — a mentor with a master’s degree or higher who helps the student design a particular learning project.

Loyola currently offers a health care systems management master’s degree for registered nurses looking to move from bedside care into leadership roles. It’s a 36-credit, two-year program. The degree is for students interested in roles stretching from middle-management roles up to jobs as chief executives.

Loyola also offers a three-year, 80-credit doctor of nursing practice degree for nurses interested in either conducting research or taking new research and applying it in the field.

Loyola’s nursing faculty was challenged to design courses teaching nurses how to assume leadership roles, according to Kathleen Snyder, executive director of JesuitNET, a consulting firm for Jesuit schools.

Faculty members spent an average of three months developing their courses before they were made available to students.

“We had to make sure these courses were thoughtful and engaging with a high level of critical thinking built into each one,” Snyder said. “Critical thinking is needed for nurses who are dealing with life or death situations. We wanted students to learn to think deeply and make thoughtful decisions.”

Jeri Buckley is a registered nurse working full time in Naples, Fla. A frequent vacationer to New Orleans, Buckley chose Loyola, she said, because she liked the idea of small class sizes.

Buckley said prioritizing her time on the way to earning a doctor of nursing practice degree has been manageable as the syllabus for each course spells out when each assignment is due. She said she keeps in touch with her professors a minimum of once a week through a live video conferencing program similar to Skype. She discusses assignments with classmates via Facebook or the discussion boards built into the courses.

“I live in Naples. A lot of schools offer DNP programs,” she said. “I like the research the faculty was doing at Loyola. I feel supported by the faculty and the interim dean. It’s been challenging but very rewarding.”