The need for a flexible higher education is growing. A 2018 study by the Babson Survey Research Group found that more than 6.3 million U.S. students took an online course in 2015, an increase of 5.6% over the previous year. That jump is not new: this is the 14th straight year Babson has reported growth in online course enrollment. Online programs are increasingly popular among those who have full-time or part-time jobs, family responsibilities, or other needs that make distance learning easier, such as members of the military or those with a disability.
Today’s students can find an online program in almost any field, including healthcare and medical support professions. Even programs that typically have a strong hands-on element, such as nursing or occupational therapy, can deliver the bulk of classroom learning through online platforms. These hybrid or blended programs allow students the flexibility of online courses combined with the hands-on training that fully prepares them for the rigors of the job. Let’s take a look at how online learning works in healthcare higher education.
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How It All Works: Online Education in Healthcare
In the world of healthcare, some professions are more hands-on than others. The amount of online learning in a program usually depends on the amount of academic, clerical, and clinical knowledge needed to succeed in a particular career. For example, medical biller and coder responsibilities lie almost exclusively with academic and clerical work, which is why these programs can be entirely online. On the other hand, nurses work with patients in a clinical setting every day, meaning that most nursing programs have a heavy face-to-face component.
Here’s a quick look at example courses within each category, and whether or not they can be taken online:
Academic Courses Online: Yes
These courses set the foundation of knowledge for any health-oriented education program. In fact, many programs – from nursing to medical assisting to radiology tech and more – will include courses similar to these. Since there is no hands-on work involved, they can be taken mostly or fully online.
Clerical Courses Online: Yes
These courses focus on the paperwork that drives so much of the healthcare system today. Like the academic courses, these can be taught and taken via the web.
Clinical Courses Online: No
These are courses that must be completed in person, as they have a hands-on elements that simply cannot be taught through online means. Some courses might be a hybrid, in which some of the assignments can be completed online while other assignments must be completed in a classroom or clinical setting.
Online Learning Platforms & Tech
For most schools, online learning is handled by a learning management system. Through these platforms, colleges can tailor their programs through the use of video chat, discussion boards, virtual scheduling calendars, integrated video streaming, and more. These platforms also allow for a variety of online resources to be integrated with the student’s program, such as tutoring options and library services. Here are some of the more common platforms and tech an online student might encounter:
Online courses can be delivered either synchronously (which means a student must be in front of the computer at a designated time), or asynchronously (the student still has regular deadlines, but doesn’t have “class” on any set schedule).
The 3 Types of Online Programs
Now that you know how these online programs work, what are your options for taking courses online? For some programs, you can look forward to an entirely online experience and never set foot in a classroom. But for others, you might have to attend some in-person sessions. Here’s what you’ll see the most when looking into medical support and healthcare programs.
- Fully online
In this type of program, students will complete every bit of their coursework online. This includes everything that is required for graduation, such as all general education, academic or clerical classes, as well as any examinations, group projects or collaborations. These programs employ distance learning to the fullest, which allows students from across the country to participate in the program. Examples of programs that use fully online formats to full advantage include:
- Medical billing and coding online courses
- Health information technology
- Medical transcription
- Some nursing bridge/completion programs
- Hybrid or blended
Hybrid (also called blended) courses are exactly what they sound like: they include both online courses and a hands-on element. But not all hybrid programs require the same amount of face-to-face learning. Mostly online programs are heavy on distance courses and light on hands-on training, while partially online programs simply allow students to supplement their in-person college experience with some online courses. Here’s a deeper dive into the two.
Mostly online: In these programs, a vast majority of courses can be taken online. Students can also complete exams through online proctoring, and can even work with other students for in-depth collaboration on assignments, reports and projects. In this situation, the only face-to-face work a student must complete will be in courses that require laboratory work, clinicals, or an internship. A few examples of programs that can take the mostly online approach include:
Partially online: In this type of hybrid program, students spend most of their time on campus. They take many courses in a traditional classroom on a regular semester schedule. However, some of their courses – especially prerequisites, general education courses and basic fundamentals of healthcare courses – can be taken online. Exams tend to be completed in person, and, of course, the hands-on work happens on campus or at an approved facility nearby. In a program like this, the use of online courses is a convenience for the student who wants a little more flexibility. Programs that often use this approach include:
Remember that online schools and programs in medical and health can vary widely. Even programs that culminate in the same certificate can have different requirements. For instance, one medical assisting certificate program may be partially online, while another will be mostly online; the former will have many more hands-on requirements than the latter. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to research potential programs thoroughly to determine which ones meet your personal needs.
How Online Schools Tackle Hands-on Requirements
Each online school has its own way of tackling the hands-on requirements for students in programs with moderate to heavy patient work. In some cases, the work can be completed at the college or university, or at a healthcare facility nearby. But what about those who live across the country from their online school? There are options for them as well. Here are a few of the most common questions asked by potential students:
If you’re moving into a profession that requires plenty of hands-on work with patients – such as nursing or occupational therapy – any reputable program is going to require extensive hours of clinicals or an internship. Completing these hands-on sections are needed for graduation; beyond that, they are critical to getting hired. Employers want to know their new hires can hit the ground running, with excellent skills already learned through their educational program. If you’re headed for a patient-centric career, be very wary of any program that says “no hands-on work needed!”
Read Up Roundup
Choosing the best medical and health program is not an easy task. When you throw the various online options into the mix, the venture gets even more difficult. Even though we’ve given you a great start in understanding the options, there’s so much more to learn about online programs, and so many decisions to make on the path to determining which one is right for you. If you’re looking for more, check out these helpful resources.
Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions. From radiologist to medical assistant to nurse and more, aspiring healthcare professionals can turn to this site for information on allied health degrees, schools and careers.
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook. This valuable resource has a wealth of information on almost any career imaginable, including those in allied health, nursing, medicine and the like.
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. This important organization looks at the quality of various programs for allied health professionals.
U.S. Department of Education: Accreditation. Finding an accredited school is vitally important for all students seeking a certificate, diploma or degree. This page explains everything about it.
What is eLearning? Known as online learning, distance education and even the virtual classroom, taking courses online can be tough to understand at first. Here’s a primer courtesy of the state of North Carolina.