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Transitioning to Online School: A Guide for Healthcare Students

From getting the right tech in place to mastering Zoom and Google Meet, learn how to prepare yourself for online learning success.

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Author: Shannon Lee
Nicholas McGowan

Nicholas McGowan

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN is a critical care nurse with 10 years of experience in cardiovascular, surgical intensive care, and neurological trauma nursing. Nicholas also puts his background in education, leadership, and public speaking to work to help other nurses. Nicholas is an online learner who builds on his foundation of critical care nursing, which he uses directly at the bedside, where he still practices.

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A smiling young woman with glasses and long curly hair specializing in medical billing and coding, sitting at a desk with a laptop, looking off to the side in a modern office setting.

Whether you’re a remote learning newbie or a seasoned expert, navigating online learning can be quite the adventure. When you begin an online program, you explore new technology like video chats and virtual office hours while managing various learning management systems. But hold on, what about hands-on experiences like lab work and clinicals? Is it possible to become a radiologic technologist without getting up close and personal with some X-ray equipment? (Fear not, hands-on experience remains vital for such professions.)

During the first few weeks, you’ll feel like you’re having something new thrown at you every day, but once you’ve got the basics and made a few academic and lifestyle changes, you can get your degree program on track and on time rather quickly. Use the following guide to learn how to start your online school journey, how to succeed from day one to graduation, and find key insight from a critical care nurse with years of online learning experience under his belt.

Administration & Logistics for Online Learning

Before you begin your first online class, you need to know how it works. How will you communicate? When will you meet? Will the professor have office hours? While each professor, school, and course will be different, the following should give you an idea of what to expect.


When you attend an online program, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to communicate with fellow students and professors, but it’s up to you to ensure you keep up your side of the conversation. Some standard methods of online learning communication include virtual classroom discussions, video calls, and emails. Students often use discussion boards, group chats, or messaging apps like Slack for real-time collaboration. Social media platforms and dedicated online forums can also facilitate peer networking and engagement, while office hours or one-on-one sessions provide opportunities to connect directly with instructors.


Online classes are held in synchronous or asynchronous formats (or sometimes a combination of both). Synchronous learning means students are required to attend class at a particular time. even though it’s online. This might mean watching or listening to a live lecture or having a set time where all students sign onto the learning management system. Asynchronous learning means you can attend class at a time that’s best for you; the lectures or other course materials will be available to you at any time.

Office Hours

Office hour policies vary depending on the professor, department, and school. In some cases, professors may have in-person office hours in addition to online office hours. In the case of online office hours, students can expect to communicate in real time with their professor through an agreed upon manner, such as a video conference app or telephone.

Pro tip: Come to office hours with questions, comments, and assignments prepared. Your professor’s time will be limited, and it won’t be as easy to call back five minutes after you leave.

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Online Learning & Communication Systems

One of the most important elements of online school is understanding the communication methods used in the program and learning how they work. As an online student, you need to communicate with fellow classmates about projects, with teachers during or after lessons, and even with administrators about financial aid and technical support. And while phone calls and video chats can be effective, learning management systems and communication platforms facilitate everything. As you make the transition to online school, make sure you know how to navigate these programs. Here’s a rundown of the communication tech you’ll likely encounter.

Learning Management Systems (LMSs)

A lot of online learning coordination and communication happens in an LMS. This is where your professor will post lectures, notes, assignments, and even quizzes and exams. It’s also where you may submit most of your work and interact with classmates. With the growth of online learning, the number of LMS options has increased, as well. Let’s look at the most common systems you’ll find today:

  • Blackboard Learn: Blackboard is one of the most widely used online learning platforms. It allows professors to do almost anything they could do in a traditional course, such as make announcements, create a class calendar, create learning modules, and upload assignments.
  • Brightspace: Developed by D2L, Brightspace is a cloud-based online learning platform available on any mobile device. Through Brightspace, students can interact on forums, complete course assignments at their own pace, and make it easy for professors to track their learning.
  • Canvas: One of the more popular platforms, Canvas makes it possible for students to receive announcements, assignments, quizzes, and class syllabi, as well as engage in class discussions and conferences.
  • Cornerstone: Cornerstone is mostly used for professional learning, but it’s also used by some schools. Cornerstone is available on almost any device.
  • Google Classroom: While not a full-fledged online learning platform, Google Classroom allows students and professors to create and exchange information, projects, course materials, and assignments.
  • Moodle: Moodle is one of the most popular international platforms. Students can take quizzes and exams online; professors can complete grading for both online and on campus courses.
  • WebEx: A subsidiary of Cisco Systems, WebEx is primarily a videoconferencing platform that allows students to interact with each other.

Video Chat and Virtual Meeting Programs

Crucial Tools & Technology for Online Learning

When it comes to online learning, technology is the name of the game. Fortunately, you don’t need state-of-the-art equipment that costs a fortune. But you will need to make sure you have the following:

  • Computer: Either a laptop or desktop should suffice, although a laptop might be more convenient due to portability and the built-in webcam. While you don’t need the newest computer, you’ll want one only a few years old, so it can handle the software you might need.
  • Smartphone: Probably not required in most online programs, but can be very helpful for participating in class or completing assignments while on the go.
  • High-speed internet: Reliable broadband internet is ubiquitous, but in the few places where it’s not, distance learning may not be possible.
  • Webcam and microphone: Most laptops will have these built-in, but if you use a desktop, you have to buy them separately.
  • Assistive technology: Students with certain disabilities may need special equipment to allow them equal access to online courses. Examples of assistive technology include eye tracking tech and alternatives to the traditional keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, or trackpad.

The Habits of Successful Online Students

A big advantage of online learning is the ability to complete coursework when and where it’s most convenient. But this advantage can make online learning difficult if you have trouble with procrastination or self-discipline. Here are several tools and tips to help you keep up with your course material.


MindNote: When it comes to brainstorming and working out ideas, this is a great app for documenting and sharing.

Pocket: This app allows users to save a website or other online content for consumption at a later time, with no internet connection required.

Countdown timer: Your smartphone probably has a watch or clock app that allows you to set a countdown timer or alarm. This can serve as a useful reminder when you need to do something by a certain time.



Project management software

Online storage

8 Time Management & Self-Discipline Hacks

Online learning requires significant self-discipline and good management of time, both of which are easier said than done. Sometimes it’s easy to leave your homework for later, or to forget about an important deadline while you’re running errands or working. These tips can help you keep your online program moving in the right direction.


Avoid opportunities to get onto social media or browse the web. This might mean going offline on your learning platform and putting your phone into airplane mode.


The best way to manage time is to have a good understanding of what you have to do. A central location of all planned work and activities will help. Find a calendar or list app – or even an organized pen-and-paper – and keep it visible at all times.


This will break down big projects into manageable chunks and provide a sense of accomplishment as you cross things off. Never underestimate the power of a solid to-do list.


It’s easy to get intimidated by trying to do too much at once. Break down what you have to do into the smallest sections possible or focus on just one thing at a time.


Working for hours on end can lead to physical and emotional fatigue, making it easier to lose focus or get distracted. Taking a break every now and again can help you study more efficiently.


You can easily become overwhelmed when you have numerous assignments. You can’t do them all at once, so you’ll need to figure out what needs to be done first. Think about which of your tasks has the closest deadline, which might take you the longest, and which carry the most weight. These should factor into your prioritization.


Listen to your lecture while you do chores around your home or make that phone call during the 10 minutes you’re sitting in a waiting room somewhere. As long as your tasks hold value and you can remain focused, multi-tasking can be a game-changer.


When you need to hunker down and get something done, turn off the app and text notifications on your phone or computer. This reduces opportunities for distraction. And if you live with others – a roommate, kids, a significant other – place a Do Not Disturb sign on your work station so they know you mean business.

Self-Care Essentials for Online School Success

How you’re feeling overall can impact your performance in school, especially when taking online courses with a more self-directed approach. So when you’re not studying, working on papers, or taking exams, do your best to carve out some “me time”. Here are X ways you can maximize your mental health:


Handle your work and responsibilities first. You can get overly stressed or even burned out when you say “yes” to everything for others. This can be difficult, especially if you have children, but new responsibilities in the virtual classroom means setting new boundaries with those around you.


A reward every once in a while can be a strong motivator – it can energize you to push forward and provide rest or joy once you get there. Try picking one small thing each day, or one larger thing each week, that will be your reward for all the time you spent hitting the books.


Physical activity is important for a variety of reasons, including stress relief, taking a break from work, and improving your overall health. If you’re a hiker, a biker, or if there’s another sport or physical hobby you like, make it a priority to add it to your schedule. At the very least, take a walk around the block every hour or so.


When you’re not getting enough rest, it can alter your mood and make it harder to get things done. Do the best you can to get into a sleep cycle that works for you. Some people do better with a rigid schedule, while others manage their energy and not their time. Find what’s best for you and stick to it.


There comes a point where the desire for perfection will start to become counterproductive. Don’t stress too much when it comes to earning that A when a B on your transcript will still get you exactly where you need to be.


Whether it’s watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a white noise app such as Noisli, you need to find some way to let your mind and body take a break.


Although crackers, chips, and chocolate can be good for your soul, they may not do your brain or your body much good in excess. If you’re a snack-while-you-study type of person, grab an apple, a pear, celery and peanut butter, or even some halfway decent trail mix.

Mastering the Virtual Classroom

Now that we know how online education works, it’s time to take full advantage of it. This means not only maximizing your success on the academic side of things, but also communicating with professors, peer, and even industry professionals. Online education can be as enriching as attending a traditional on-campus program, as long as you know what to do and where to look.

Create a virtual study group

Online study groups facilitate learning in the virtual classroom by making it easier to discuss ideas, compare notes, and lead on others when you’re stuck. These groups can also help you forge connections – both professional and personal – that can be valuable long after you graduate.

Participate as much as possible

Help as much as possible

Take things offline

Take the first step

How Do Clinicals, Labs, & Work Study Happen with Online Classes?

Healthcare is a hands-on field, requiring professionals to work directly with patients in hospitals, clinics, and other medical settings. With an online program in healthcare, face-to-face interaction may be required, too. Although a large portion of the curriculum may be completed online, in-person clinicals, practicums, or labs may still be required.

Normally, students fulfill these real-world requirements at an approved location. Depending on the school and the program, these will be one of three places:


Many schools with online programs also have campuses where students take traditional programs and complete hands-on work. If you live within a short drive of the campus, this may be your best bet.


Many online students in healthcare are using their program to earn a degree in their current line of work. For example, an LPN in an online bridge program to become a registered nurse. In these cases, a student may have the opportunity to perform certain tasks at work and have them count for the hands-on portion of their online program.


This may be a physician’s office, clinic, or a related facility that has a relationship with the school. Here, a supervisor will be appointed to sign off on the student’s work.

When an extraordinary event occurs, like the spread of COVID-19, these in-person education mandates may be relaxed, but will still require onsite training and learning. For example, nursing students may be allowed to complete only some of their clinical requirements through telehealth or virtual methods.

Insight from an Online Student in Healthcare

Nicholas McGowan

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN is a critical care nurse with 10 years of experience in cardiovascular, surgical intensive care, and neurological trauma nursing. Nicholas also puts his background in education, leadership, and public speaking to work to help other nurses. Nicholas is an online learner who builds on his foundation of critical care nursing, which he uses directly at the bedside, where he still practices. In addition, Nicholas hosts an online course at CCRN Academy where he helps nurses achieve their CCRN certification.

Q. What tips do you have for someone who has never taken an online class before?

A. You must be diligent and consistent, (and maybe a little selfish) about your study time and get your family on board with it as well. I converted my spare bedroom into a home office, and when the door is closed, my two young boys know that I am occupied and not to disturb me.

Q. As an online student yourself, you’ve experienced firsthand how it works. What were some of the most difficult adjustments for you when it came to online learning versus learning on a campus?

Q. Is there anything you’d like to add about online learning?