Online vs. Hybrid vs. Campus Learning in Healthcare

When applying to a healthcare program, most students will have the opportunity to choose between online, hybrid, or on-campus learning. There are definite advantages and some challenges to each mode, especially in healthcare, but one student’s challenge can mean another student’s success.

Last Updated: 11/06/2020
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Online learning continues to grow in popularity – it’s accessible, flexible, and, in some cases, cost-effective. The arrival of COVID-19 has pushed the move to online programs and courses even further, with many higher education analysts calling the transition long overdue. Prior to the pandemic, about a third of college students were enrolled in online classes. Since its arrival, many college and universities have made nearly all of their coursework available on the web.

While much of healthcare education is face-to-face, many college-level programs have incorporated online elements. More and more nursing students are taking their academic courses online and collaborating with professors and peers via email, Blackboard, and other systems. The same goes for just about every medical and health discipline, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and even surgical technology.

But if you’re a student in medicine or healthcare, how much online learning is right for you? Should you take all, some, or none of your courses online? The following guide breaks down the pros and cons of each learning option, and gives you the answers you need to address the “online learning question” for yourself.

Learning Mode Basics

Before signing up for any type of higher education program, it’s important to learn how the three main learning modes stack up. This table details the general characteristics of each mode categorized by major factors that could affect your decision. Some components are the same across the board (accreditation is a good example of this). Others can differ significantly depending on the delivery method.

Online Hybrid Campus
Accreditation Online programs should hold the same accreditation as schools using other learning modes. In general, this is regional accreditation from a body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Some online schools or programs may hold special online learning accreditation, as well, although it’s less important and less common. Same. Same.
Communication Most communication occurs through the school’s learning management system. Individual courses may vary and will use some combination of threaded discussion boards, video conferencing, email, and interactive chats. In a healthcare education program, look for all academic coursework to take place online. See below for details on labs and meetups. Hybrid programs blend more traditional modes of communication with online tools. In healthcare, that balance will most likely skew toward online communication, reserving in-person communication for physical requirements like orientation sessions, practicums, labs, and externships. This mode will have the most opportunity for in-person communication. That said, many on-campus courses still use email and other technologies to support open communication outside structured class time.
Cost Cost can vary quite a bit for this mode. Some online programs may charge a flat rate, while other charge per credit. Some may also charge additional technology-related fees. If you live in a different state as the school you plan to attend pay close attention because rates may be more expensive regardless of online delivery. Hybrid programs tend to adopt a tuition schedule based on either the on-campus or online modes. The same distinctions between in-state and out-of-state residents also apply. Not every school will use that caveat, but some do and the differences can be significant. For on-campus programs, the differences in cost often depend on the type of school. Private, institutions tend to be more expensive, while public schools often offer cheaper rates, especially for in-state residents (this applies to other modes as well).
Curriculum Online programs follow the same curriculum as on-campus offerings, leading to the same learning outcomes. They using interactive learning tools and innovative technologies to provide remote content to students around the world. Hybrid programs blend components derived from the other modes. For healthcare, this normally means that all coursework occurs online with fieldwork or clinical rotations taking place in person. Programs using this mode of learning offer a traditional curriculum delivered through traditional formats. Student can expect to attend classes in lecture halls and seminar rooms with other students and faculty.
Flexibility This mode offers the highest amount of flexibility and accommodation. Some programs deliver content synchronously, meaning that courses meet at a regularly scheduled time in an online environment. Others may use asynchronous methods, accessible anytime. The hybrid model offers flexibility with balance. Classes may be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. Some may require an in-person campus visit near the middle of the program but most only require in-person attendance for practicum components. Campus-based programs offer the least amount of flexibility. Each course takes place in-person, requiring students to travel or live near campus. Some healthcare programs may also enroll students based on a cohort model. This means that you move through the program with a group of peers at the same pace.
Labs/Meetups Labs, meetups, and other face-to-face tasks usually take place in one of three ways with an online program:
  1. Virtual simulations. This includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and other techniques to give the student a near real-life feel.
  2. Short-term residencies. Some programs may also have periodic residencies where cohorts meet on campus for a week or so to meet, learn, share, and participate in hands-on activities. These last between one day to one week.
  3. Third-party agreements. Here, a student performs labs and other hands-on tasks under the supervision of an employer or an outside medical facility.
Hybrid offerings may use online simulations for some lab experiences, too, but many try to integrate them into the in-person components. Some hybrid programs involve at least one in-person meetup at some point, but this is not a universal requirement. That said, many hybrid programs tackle most academic coursework online and most lab work and hands-on elements in-person. Campus programs conduct all lab and meetup experiences in-person. Students use the school’s own facilities and lab equipment. Meetups often occur on a regular basis as a normal part of the program, especially for those using a cohort model.
Testing and Exams For online healthcare programs, most tests and exams are delivered in virtual environments. Notable exceptions include licensure exams but most of those tests are taken following graduation. Like other factors, hybrid programs provide blended opportunities for testing and exams. Students should expect to sit for some assessments in-person with others occurring online. Most capstone requirements occur in-person. Tests and exams for campus-based healthcare programs all take place in-person. Most schools administer them in traditional classroom settings with an instructor or designated proctor.
Student Support Healthcare programs using this mode make a range of support services available online. They include chat platforms, virtual conferencing and one-on-one tutorials, and digital library tools. Hybrid healthcare programs extend student support initiatives using multiple channels. Most students use online resources at the beginning of the program and switch to in-person support for fieldwork or practicum requirements. Campus programs in healthcare use brick and mortar resources to deliver student support. Students can visit counseling and wellness centers and use library halls or other dedicated study spaces for peer collaboration.

Online Learning in Focus

Want a closer look at online learning in healthcare? This section dives into some of the benefits and potential drawbacks of college-level online programs in medical and health. It discusses how they work with this learning mode and details who they are best suited for.

Benefits

  • Convenience – Online healthcare programs require little to no travel and extended enrollment options that can accommodate a variety of circumstances.
  • Quick time to completion – Some students can finish online programs faster, especially in schools with intensive or accelerated options.
  • Increased diversity – Because online learning is so accessible, many students interact with more a diverse body of peers. This can be a great asset as you prepare for employment.
  • New transferable skills – Online learning encourages marketable skills in areas like virtual communication, time management, and assistive technology.
  • Cost-effective – Tuition rates and expenses do vary, but in general, online health programs can be more cost-effective due to fewer travel responsibilities and fees.

Who Thrives

Self-motivated students with outside commitments will be a natural fit for online healthcare programs. Older learners, working professionals, and those looking to make a career change find the flexibility and convenience especially suitable.

Many schools design their online healthcare curriculum with busy students or working professionals in mind. The rhythm and delivery can be incredibly accommodating if you thrive in a self-paced learning environment that lets you set your own schedule.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Limited physical contact – These programs encourage collaboration, but face-to-face interaction is limited. If you’re a learner who needs those opportunities it might be worth weighing your options.
  • Time management – Online learning requires careful planning. Take an inventory or your abilities and consider whether time management concerns might interfere with your progress.
  • Technical issues – This might seem like a no-brainer, but online healthcare programs depend on technological know-how and digital literacy. Think about how you might respond to potential problems and assess your ability to adapt.

Healthcare Programs: How They Work Online

With this learning mode all coursework is delivered online. Students receive material using technologies that are synchronous, asynchronous, or some combination of the two. With synchronous tools, students meet with their instructor and peers remotely at a regularly scheduled time. Asynchronous tools are the most flexible and make content available for use anytime, anywhere.  

Because healthcare programs prepare you to enter a practice-oriented, evidence-based field, most involve some sort of hands-on component. Some programs require in-person labs and clinical placements. Others split the difference, offering lab simulations online while conducting clinical placements in person. With few exceptions, online healthcare learners should expect to complete the clinical component in person.

Resources

Online Medical Student Wellness and Burnout Resources: Published by the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine, this guide looks at how healthcare students can move through their online program without extra stress and anxiety.

Online Resources for Healthcare Students: Ameritech College of Healthcare lists several solid resources and study tools for online students in healthcare.

Transitioning to Online School: A Guide for Healthcare Students: Our guide looks at what you can expect from online training in healthcare and how to make a successful transition.

University of Central Florida – Online Nursing, BS: This program stands as a good example of an online healthcare program and offers a good sense of what you can expect.

Hybrid Learning in Focus

Below we spotlight hybrid healthcare programs and detail how they differ from online or on-campus offerings. This section includes major advantages associated with hybrid learning along with potential things to watch out for. It discusses what a typical hybrid program looks like and offers some resources for students interested in this approach.

Benefits

  • Self-paced – While not as flexible as the online mode, hybrid learning in healthcare often lets you work at your own pace. In synchronous programs, this can mean ultimate convenience in course loads across semesters. In asynchronous, this means flexibility across semesters but also during the semester when it comes to when you submit certain coursework. Make sure you fully vet and understand the requirements of an online program before you apply.
  • Blended environments – This mode combines elements from online and on-campus models to deliver a blended experience that benefits from traditional instruction and innovative learning technologies.
  • Professional accommodation – Many people choose hybrid healthcare programs because the mode allows them to integrate their current work experience (if relevant). This can be especially useful when the time for clinical rotations comes.
  • Diverse methods of communication – Healthcare students in hybrid programs interact with faculty and peers using multiple forms of communication (face-to-face, virtual conferencing, etc.).
  • Personalization – This mode offers more opportunity for individual input from students. Some programs allow learners to develop a personalized plan of study that meets their needs.

Who Thrives

This mode works best for those who want to enjoy some of the benefits of online learning, but aren’t ready to make the full move away from in-person learning. Students who already work in a healthcare-related field may find it especially useful. In some case you may be able to integrate that experience in studies, using your job to satisfy educational requirements.

Hybrid programs also work well for transfer students carrying credits earned at other institutions. Most schools extend convenient pathways for transfers and make it easy for student to begin their studies at a level that makes sense given their background.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Multiple platforms – Hybrid healthcare programs rely on different methods of communication and delivery (in-person and virtual). This can be useful but may not suit all learning styles.
  • Work-life balance – Healthcare is already a demanding field, both professionally and academically. Hybrid programs work to integrate the two, but success will depend each individual student.
  • Peer support – This learning mode does encourage peer support and collaboration, but students will need to be much more intentional about carving out space for those opportunities.

Hybrid Healthcare Programs: How They Work

Hybrid healthcare programs follow a similar progression as online offerings and modify delivery with physical components throughout. Individual requirements will vary by school, but hybrid students can expect fewer asynchronous elements with more opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

Some healthcare programs require semi-regular sessions or colloquiums on a regular basis. Others may only provide one or two throughout the entirety of the program but conduct some classes or labs in-person. Virtually all hybrid programs in healthcare require in-person practicums or fieldwork.

Resources

Enhancing Student Success in Health Programs – Active Learning in a Hybrid Format: This Journal of Instructional Technologies article looks at how hybrid learning in healthcare can improve learning outcomes and future success.

Forsyth Tech Community College – Nursing Assistant Hybrid Program: This program stands as a good representation of how hybrid learning works in healthcare.

Remote, Online, and Hybrid Instruction Resource Guide: Glendale Community College offers this guide designed to introduce new students to the rigors of a hybrid learning environment.

Understanding Clinicals and Fieldwork: Our guide on practicum components in healthcare looks at what you can expect from the experience, including how hybrid programs handle hands-on requirements.

Campus Learning in Focus

This section focuses on more traditional healthcare programs that provide in-person instruction on campus. It discusses the pros and cons of these programs and looks at what it takes to be successful in the environment they provide. It also lists some solid resources for on-campus learners.

Benefits

  • Face-to-face interaction – Campus learning is based on in-person collaboration with peers and faculty in a classroom setting through lectures and discussions.
  • Immersive experiences – Coursework in this mode encourages experiential learning. For healthcare programs this means hands-on lab components, on-site skill clinics, and other opportunities.
  • Community focus – On-campus healthcare students enjoy the benefit of studying within a university often tasked with delivering care to the larger community it serves. This can be a great career development opportunity.
  • Professional networking – Students can develop solid professional networks with any learning mode, but on-campus programs make this opportunity more readily available.
  • Hands-on academic support – Campus-based healthcare programs extend a number of student support services not always available online. These include libraries, counseling centers, program events, and lab sessions.

Who Thrives

Students looking for a traditional higher education experience will find campus-based programs both satisfying and accommodating. Healthcare courses of study using this learning mode usually attract learners early in their career or those just starting out. They offer a plethora of resources and support designed to introduce new students to the college experience and the rigors of healthcare practice.

Campus programs encourage broad-based instruction and are normally set up to satisfy general education requirements along with specialized instruction in a healthcare-related field. For this reason, students with no transfer credit or a limited academic background will also be a good fit.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Cost – Rates and fees will vary, but campus-based healthcare programs can be more expensive, especially when you add in the fees and/or if you plan to attend a private school. Public colleges and universities may offer more economical options.
  • Time constraints – These programs also deliver content in a more regimented schedule with limited options for flexibility. Take a look at your own schedule and other outside commitments in advance to see what will work best.
  • Length – Accelerated and intensive formats are available on campus, but many healthcare programs using this learning mode have set timetables. Depending on your circumstances, this may not be a concern, but it is worth considering.

Campus Healthcare Programs: How They Work

Healthcare programs administered on-campus operate according to a conventional term-based scheduled. Student should expect to complete all program requirements in-person with few exceptions.

Most programs begin with coursework in the liberal arts and then move to healthcare foundations, followed by instruction in a specific discipline (nursing, healthcare administration, etc.). Capstone components include integrative practicums, fieldwork, or clinical placements that prepare students for evidence-based practice after graduation.  

Resources

American Association of Colleges of Nursing – Resources for Students: This professional association lists several resources designed to support healthcare students engaged in campus learning.

How to Become a Medical and Healthcare Professional: Our guide looks at how to prepare for training and future employment in these fields and includes some advice for on-campus learners.

Training for Healthcare Professionals: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain this online portal full of tools and resources for campus-based healthcare students.

University of Washington – B.S. in Health Informatics and Health Management: This course of study follows a curriculum and delivery schedule shared across many campus-based opportunities.

How to Choose Your Learning Mode

Every student is different. Some want flexibility, others need it. Others still need flexibility on a day-to-day basis, and/or with their credit loads from fall through spring semesters. So, where do you fall when it comes to academic and scheduling needs, and how do those needs translate to a specific learning mode? Answer the questions below to see if an online, hybrid, or campus program makes the most sense for you.

1 How much scheduling flexibility do you normally have on a weekly basis?

  • A lot. May schedule varies week to week and I have a lot of free time or the ability to move things around if required.
  • Some. I have regular commitments or responsibilities that occur at specific times, but have some flexibility despite those constraints.
  • Little or none. I am employed full-time, have significant family responsibilities, or other commitments that cannot be shifted.  

If you answered A and have a lot of flexibility, you can probably attend a campus program with no problem and may enjoy being on campus. Hybrid and online modes will also work for you. If you answered B because you have some things you just can’t move around, hybrid or online modes will help you to meet those obligations without extra stress. If you answered C and have little or no flexibility in your schedule, online programs will work best. Even the hands-on components for these programs will offer opportunities for students with full schedules.

2 Are you a self-motivated learner?

  • Yes. I prefer to pursue studies on my own and have no problem meeting deadlines when left to my own devices.
  • It depends. I can do things on my own but prefer to have some balance.
  • No. I need structure with a regular schedule and perform better when interacting with teachers and classmates within that schedule.

If you answered A you will be a great fit in most online programs regardless of delivery method (synchronous or asynchronous). Hybrid and campus programs are also viable options. If you answered B and need some balance between structure and independent study, then a hybrid program may be the best choice because it blends both elements. Online programs with more synchronous opportunities will also work. If you selected C as your answer then a campus program will likely be the best fit for your learning style, but hybrid programs can also meet your needs.

3 Are you technologically savvy with a reliable high-speed internet connection?

  • Yes. I thrive in online environments and already use virtual platforms as a regular part of my life.
  • Somewhat. I have access to high-speed internet but have limited experience with remote learning tools.
  • No. My internet access is limited or intermittent. I sometimes struggle to adapt to new technologies and have never used remote learning tools before.

If you answered A and feel comfortable with new technologies and virtual environments online and hybrid programs will both meet your needs. Campus programs will also work if that is your preference. If you answered B online programs are still a solid option, but you may need to avail yourself of the school’s support services. Hybrid programs might present a challenge because they require you to blend sometimes unfamiliar technologies. If you answered C and feel uncomfortable with new technologies campus programs will be the best choice for you.

4 Are tuition expenses and financial aid major factors in your decision?

  • Yes. I will likely choose a program based on costs and will depend on scholarships or other opportunities to finance my education.
  • Not really. Costs and financial aid will inform my decision but probably won’t be a deciding factor.
  • Not at all. I am confident that I will be able to attend the program of my choice regardless of cost.

Costs and financial aid vary quite a bit, so theoretically any learning mode could work here and you should be sure to read the fine print when researching potential schools. Generally speaking, if you answered A and finances are a major concern, online programs may be the better option. They can be more cost-effective regardless of where you live, although this is not a universal rule and there are notable exceptions (like accelerated or intensive online programs). If you answered B or C and finances won’t figure much into your decision most learning modes will work for you.

5 Are you new to healthcare or do you have some previous experience (professional or academic)?

  • I am completely new to healthcare. I have no professional experience and have never studied the field before.
  • I have some limited experience. I’ve worked in healthcare in the past or I have taken classes in the subject.
  • I have a lot of experience. I have a healthcare-related degree, a certificate, or significant professional experience.

If you answered A, any of the three learning modes will work for you, but you may want to consider campus-based programs since they provide more options for beginners. If you answered B hybrid and online programs will probably be the best fit. If you have a lot of healthcare experience and answered C online programs will work well for you, especially if you currently work in healthcare. Hybrid learning modes will also meet your needs.

6 Do you hope to complete your healthcare degree quickly?

  • Yes, I hope to finish school as quickly as possible.
  • It doesn’t matter. Shortening my time in school would be beneficial, but it will not be a major factor.  
  • No. Time constraints and program length do no matter to me and will not affect my decision.

If time is a big concern and you answered A, online programs may be your best bet since many of them use provide expedited paths to completion. If you are mostly indifferent about program length and answered B, any of the available learning modes will work for you and you can base your decision on other factors. If you answered C you will be in a similar position and can weigh your options based on other preferences.

7 What is your higher education background?

  • I have no prior experience in a post-secondary setting. I do not hold any degrees and have no transfer credit.
  • Some. I haven’t earned a degree but I do have some transfer credit that I will bring with me.
  • Quite a bit. I have a degree or a substantial amount of transfer credit.

If you have no academic background and answered A most learning modes will work for you, but it might be worth considering campus or hybrid programs more closely. These modes often cater their curriculum to new students and offer additional opportunities to support their learning. If you answered B and don’t have a degree but some transfer credit, hybrid or online programs will be the most suitable. If you answered C and either have a lot of transfer credit or a degree in hand, then online programs make the most sense because they let you move at your own pace. You probably have other commitments too and these programs will offer more accommodation.