Virtual Classroom Fosters Collaborative Relationships Across The Country

TON - February 2010 Vol 3, No 1 — June 2, 2010

Oncology nursing students across eight states experienced numerous collaborative and learning opportunities while taking part in a novel virtual classroom academic program, according to a presentation by participants.

The information was presented by Darryl Somayaji, MSN, RN, CCRC, from Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and Lanell Bellury, RN, MN, OCN, from Saint Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta in Georgia, at the event—with fellow "virtual classmate" Rebecca Donohue, NP, AOCN, APNG, from Acadiana Medical Oncology in Lafayette, Louisiana, joining via webcam. "Technological advances must be embraced by advanced practice nurses," said Somayaji. "Innovation, networking, and advanced educational opportunities are all extremely important."

This virtual classroom was set up and delivered online through the University of Utah College of Nursing PhD Distance Program. Under the direction of Kathi Mooney, PhD, RN, FAAAN, AOCN, professor of nursing at the University of Utah and past president of the Oncology Nursing Society, nine female students (considered a cohort) enrolled in the program, which started in 2006.

"Dr Mooney came up with this idea of an oncology-focused program," Somayaji said. "It was set up to address the shortage of PhD-prepared cancer nurse scientists and nursing faculty within a hightech learning environment."

Some of the challenges faced while creating this community included coordinating logistics and technical needs of students from four different time zones, at the same time as coordinating the university's administrative needs.

The students used interactive IP videoconferencing to access the live classroom several times per week from their home or workplace. In addition, both faculty and students could use the videoconferencing tool to discuss other issues among themselves during nonclassroom hours.

"We're able to get great interaction this way since you can actually see everyone's faces, which is something you don't get in a traditional classroom," Bellury said. She explained that during the class, live shots of all the cohort members are shown onscreen along with the professor.

Although the setup was new, it had the same requirements as an onsite class, including a core curriculum and classroom access open to other students and staff members.

For face time, the online students meet 2 weeks per year in Salt Lake City and once per year at a research conference. So far, there have been no dropouts.

The presenters reported that the program benefits have been many, including the establishment of ongoing professional relationships among classmates in various roles and settings, such as private practice, hospice, communitybased and university healthcare systems, and cancer centers.

"There is no PhD program around the rural area where I am in Louisiana," Donohue said. "It's been great to pilot test my dissertation survey to the other cohort members and get instant feedback and a lot of help."

When asked about possible difficulties, including the fact that setting up a clinical project usually in volves a lot of collaboration, Somayaji said that was easily worked out. "I'm in New York and my oncology nurse chair is in Portland. And we have one-on-one time on camera through Skype or email a lot and it's all worked really well." She reported that usually committee members at the students' respective centers are available to help or mentor in person, if needed. "And I will defend in person."

In fact, the program has been deemed so successful, that all nursing PhD programs at the university now include this format option.

"This is the way of the future for research," according to Bellury. "It's become normal to communicate via email, text, webcams, etc. With so many nursing researchers looking for multisite and multidisciplinary work, this is the technology that can make all that happen. I may not have embarked on my PhD if I hadn't had this technology."

The university is currently enrolling a new cohort of students to start this program in the fall semester of 2010. "Anyone interested can apply now," Bellury said.

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