UTA gets grant to study needs of online nursing students

ARLINGTON -- At 51, Charles Wayne Lopez is making a long-awaited career change.

Lopez wanted to be a nurse, but work, family and other obligations left little time for nursing school. His ambition seemed unattainable until he enrolled in an online nursing program at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"With the online classes, it was like a gift," he said.

But while the flexibility of online classes helped, nursing school wasn't easy. He struggled his first semester and thought about quitting. He had to read hundreds of pages of material for two classes. He took tests every other week.

Lopez sought help. Student success coordinators helped him map a study plan and offered tips on time management and how to fit homework with work. Those efforts worked, and Lopez recently graduated from UT Arlington's Online Academic Partnership Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

Improving the graduation rates of nursing students is a goal of Texas higher education. The state needs more nurses and wants to increase graduation rates at nursing programs to help ease the demand, said Beth Mancini, associate dean of UT Arlington's College of Nursing.

Now, a $90,000, two-year grant from the state will allow the College of Nursing to study struggling nursing students to determine how to better help them succeed. The grant was funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's Nursing Innovation Grant, which aims to improve retention of at-risk students.

"We are very excited to have this grant," Mancini said. "It really allows the opportunity to deeply study this type of student."

Mancini said UT Arlington's study will focus on the challenges faced by online nursing students. Many are switching careers and juggling families and work. Some are older students who haven't taken college-level classes for several years.

Online nursing students, who completed prerequisite coursework before entering the program, learn at an accelerated pace with few holidays or breaks, said Cecilia Flores, a student success coordinator for the nursing program. It typically takes 15 months, while on-campus students typically take 24 months.

"They have to be very disciplined," Flores said.

Under the online nursing program, coursework is submitted online, and lectures and support information are online, Flores said. Students must participate in labs at partnering hospitals.

Students have academic coaches who monitor them online, lead teachers who provide course information and clinical instructors. Flores and colleague Lynn Cope also monitor students for success and offer support, often in time management and test-taking skills. The student success coordinators track the students' grades and work. These techniques will be monitored under the grant study, while also assessing how some online tools help at-risk nursing students, Cope said.

The data will be analyzed to see what works and can be used in nursing programs across Texas.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675