The Basics of Online Nursing Degrees

From managing your schedule to what classroom delivery looks like, get important tips you need to prepare you for learning online.

By Anna Giorgi

student in online video class with instructor and other students
student in online video class with instructor and other students

It’s a big decision to decide to go back to school—one that presents a number of challenges for people trying to work one more task into their busy lives. An online degree, which allows students flexibility in where and when they study, is often a great option for nursing students—whether you’re just starting your higher ed journey or you already have some experience under your belt.

Whether you’re going for your associate’s degree, bachelor’s, master’s—or even a doctorate, here’s what you need to know before jumping in.

Is an Online Program Right for You?

Prioritizing and managing course time around an already-busy personal life is the key to success in an online nursing program. The students best suited for online learning are committed, dedicated, and focused.

“You must be goal-driven because it is an environment where you can pick and choose most of the time when you’re going to sign on, when you’re going to do your work,” says Lisa Smith, PhD, RN, CNE, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions at Grand Canyon University. “You can’t be distracted by all the opportunities that come up throughout the week that pull your attention away.”

In addition to having the right mindset and skills, having support from your family or partner is important for your success in online learning.

In addition to a focused mindset, it’s also important to have the support of your employer if you think you’ll need to cut back in work or take time off to fulfill clinical hours. Support from your family or significant other is also critical to success in online learning. Your risk of dropping out increases when family members don’t understand the importance of what you’re trying to accomplish, Smith says.

What Nursing Degrees Can Be Earned Online?

Nursing degrees of all types—from entry-level associate’s degrees to upper-level graduate and doctorate degrees—can be earned through an online format, although there are varying levels of clinical, hands-on requirements that must be fulfilled in person at a clinic, hospital or other brick-and-mortar facility.

Check out the specific online requirements for the following nursing degree programs:

Online vs In-Class: What’s the Difference?

Students seeking their nursing degree online are studying, engaging with instructors, and completing most of their coursework remotely; usually from home. Still, the education you receive with an online program provides you with the same skills and experiences provided to students enrolled in on-campus programs.

The unique characteristic of online nursing programs is the flexibility they provide in allowing you to complete your studies on a timeline that works with your lifestyle rather than following a more regimented on-campus schedule. You’re able to choose when you learn while also gaining flexibility in overall program scheduling, since many online programs aren’t limited to traditional fall and spring semesters.

Degree programs delivered online require considerably more technological know-how than their on-campus counterparts, so it’s important to consider your computer skills in weighing your ability to learn effectively online. To prepare for online learning, you should understand how to upload documents, download software, and navigate your school’s website for classes and other educational resources such as online libraries. You may also have to work with software applications such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or Excel, depending on your educational program.

“Since online learning is a very different modality than face-to-face, prospective students need to think about how strong their time management skills are,” says Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB, associate dean for the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global. “Do they have a baseline understanding or comfort with technology?  Are they disciplined? Are they strong at basically carving out time in their day or throughout their week to budget and plan for the completion of certain materials?”

Take Our Quiz: Online or On-Campus? Find out What’s Right for You

Are you destined for distance learning or is on-campus life is your best bet?

If you’re thinking about going back to school and wondering whether learning in a traditional classroom setting or getting your degree online is best for you, our quiz can help nudge you in the right direction.

Which is best for you? Let’s find out.

Read each statement below and respond either: Online, or On-Campus.

Keep track of your answers.




The degree I want isn’t available at a convenient location, but I can complete it online without relocating.

The degree I want is within driving distance to my home or I’m willing to relocate to live near or on campus

Type of Experience:

I have a strong social network and don’t have an interest in experiencing campus life.

I want to experience all the activities that campus life has to offer when I’m not involved with academics.


I can finish my degree faster with an online program that allows me to progress at my own pace and take classes year-round.

I prefer traditional semester pacing at this point in my studies.


My work/family responsibilities require that I have the convenience to attend classes 24/7 and complete coursework on my own timeline.

I have the opportunity to be a full-time student or I have family/spousal support that makes it easy for me to adjust my calendar without a conflict.

Study Habits:

I’m self-disciplined and can stay on track in a way that helps me keep current on assignments and other course requirements.

I achieve my academic goals best with the structure and accountability that comes with attending on-campus classes on a set schedule.

Instructor Interaction:

I’m comfortable communicating with my instructor via email, discussion boards, or videoconferencing to clarify content and resolve course issues.

I prefer having the option to interact with my instructor and ask questions in real-time. I comprehend new material best when it’s presented in person.

Classmate Interaction:

I’m comfortable using discussion boards and social media to establish relationships and communicate with classmates that I may never meet in person.

I’m not confident reaching out to strangers in a virtual environment. I communicate best in face-to-face interactions.

Communication Skills:

I feel self-conscious speaking in public and prefer written communication when possible.

I’m not shy about raising my hand in class and asking a question or giving an opinion in front of my classmates.

Technological Skills:

I’m confident using technology to learn, communicate, and conduct research. I can usually resolve technical issues easily.

I have basic computer skills but am not comfortable navigating new software and learning platforms. Dealing with technical issues stresses me.

Home Environment:

I have a dedicated study space and all the tools I need to access online classes and interact with teachers and classmates when necessary.

Attending on-campus classes allows me to focus on my learning in an environment free from interruptions or distractions, which isn’t possible at my home.  

How’d you do?

If you answered, “Online” to seven or eight statements, you’re likely good to go for online classes. You probably have the discipline, confidence, and support system in place to handle an online classroom environment.

If you answered “On-Campus” or not sure to four or more statements, you may not be ready to tackle an online program. If you have concerns about technology or about reaching out to instructors and classmates but really want to make online learning work, instructors and advisors may be able to help you navigate the system and understand what they expect from students.

What to Look for In an Online Program

woman taking class online wearing headphones

You can ensure that you’re receiving a quality online education by checking school and program accreditation. Accreditation is a review process that determines whether your school or program meets established criteria that set educational standards.

You must attend an accredited program to qualify for most state nursing licenses and professional specialty certifications. You also need a degree from an accredited program if you want to transfer credits from one school to another.

School accreditation and program accreditation are awarded separately. You can verify a school’s accreditation on a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s also important to verify that your state board of nursing approves the program you’re taking and accepts a degree from there toward the licensure requirements you’ll fulfill later.

You must attend an accredited program to qualify for most state nursing licenses and professional specialty certifications.

How are Online Classes Delivered?

In an online learning environment, students typically access course content at their convenience. This means that some of your work and communication might not take place in real time. Even though you’re not physically sitting in a classroom, online programs offer many ways to engage with your instructor and fellow students.

Using Technology to Create a Connection

Many schools delivering online programs create virtual classrooms where web-based software such as Blackboard or Canvas creates an environment that mirrors a traditional classroom. You’ll access course content, turn in assignments, take quizzes, and interact with your professors and other students through this software.

Collaborating with Classmates and Study Groups

Online programs will often offer ways to help you engage with your instructors and classmates—often in real time. Courses may be delivered live when everyone has to sign on at the same time to a platform like Zoom that allows for real-time interaction through videoconferencing. Other courses may require group projects in which students have to work together. Additionally, many online schools also offer online clubs and organizations so students can socialize and form bonds away from the classroom in the same way they would on a campus.

Many online schools also offer clubs and organizations that allow students to socialize and bond in the same way that they would in a campus format.

Creating a collaborative learning community is critical to online nursing education. “Nursing is not a profession that you can do in a silo, so when you are learning online it’s very important that students have enough opportunity to interact with their classmates and faculty beyond just answering questions and submitting the assignments,” says Grand Canyon University’s Smith. “There needs to be interaction and dialogue.”

Connecting with Your Professor One-on-One

Many online schools require their professors to hold online office hours so students know they can connect as a set time. It will be up to you as an online student to seek out your professors when they’re available and be persistent if they’re not readily accessible. 

Most professors announce their preference for email, discussion boards, or even social media, at the beginning of the course so you know what to expect.

The Best Tech Set-up for Online Learning at Home

Setting up an appropriate at-home learning space can make all the difference in your success as an online student. While you may not have the luxury of designating a separate room for your studies, try to establish a personal workspace that allows you to concentrate.

To set up a home study space that positions you for success:

  • Avoid spaces that have distractions from TVs or central social areas of your home.
  • Consider using headphones if you can’t shut out nearby noise.
  • Choose a spot near a source of natural light, which helps keep you more alert and focused than fluorescent light.
  • Store study essentials like notebooks, pens, and textbooks nearby.
  • Select a chair and writing space that allow you to stay comfortable and focused.

Consult with your school for specific technology requirements and check your equipment against their standards. Most schools operate with high-speed internet. While a phone or tablet may be adequate for checking assignments, a desktop or laptop is recommended for proctored tests and live video. Schools typically provide required software for free or at a discount.

How Much Does an Online Nursing Degree Cost?

The costs of online nursing degree programs vary widely. Many online schools charge by credit hour or quarter credit hour, which is often used for part-time students. Other programs charge by semester. In a program that offers a modularized curriculum, you may be able to progress through as many courses as you can for one flat fee per semester.

In addition, some state schools may differentiate between resident and non-resident tuition for online students while others charge the same online tuition for everyone. Ask the schools you’re exploring for specifics.

To compare prices, use a school’s net price tuition calculator to determine the cost of your degree.

The best way to compare prices among programs is to use a school’s net price tuition calculator tool to determine the total cost of your degree. All schools that participate in the federal financial aid program are required to have a net price calculator on their websites. If you have to complete clinical hours, you’ll likely have to add fees for background checks, fingerprinting, equipment, uniforms, and other supplies.

Can I Get Financial Aid to Help Pay for an Online Degree?

Like traditional on-campus students, those seeking a degree online can also apply for financial aid and income-based scholarships. To qualify, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and financial institutions use this standard form to determine your eligibility for financial assistance and student loans. Other potential sources of financial aid include school or program awards, nursing scholarships, and military service credits.

Will an Online Degree Make a Difference to an Employer?

Whether you receive your degree online, in a classroom, or a combination of both, isn’t as important to employers as the fact that you attended an accredited program. An online degree prepares you to be just as competitive in the workforce as one earned on campus.

In reality, so much study has been done that validates the quality of online learning that most employers don’t typically consider an online degree as a deterrent to hire, says Smith.

Give Online Learning a Shot!

Online education is becoming more and more mainstream, especially in light of recent global events that shifted the way education is delivered. The proliferation of robust networking and collaboration tools only make pursuing your online nursing degree easier.

“Online learning is an accepted and credible way to earn a high-quality nursing degree,” says Carla D. Sanderson, PhD, RN, provost at Chamberlain University. “Prospective students are encouraged to select the program that best fits their learning preferences and lifestyle needs.”

For even more resources, check out our seven page guide to online learning.

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