Online Nursing Education and the Role of Nurse Educators

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Smiling nurse using laptop

The ongoing shortage of nurse educators is a contributing factor in the persistence of the overall nursing shortage. Data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) indicates that American nursing schools turned away over 80,000 qualified applications from nursing programs in 2019 due to insufficient educational resources, including faculty.

Finding solutions that close the nurse educator gap is critical to ensuring patients can receive the best care possible. Fortunately, such a solution exists in online nursing education, where faculty and institutions provide unparalleled learning opportunities, inspire rigorous educational experiences, and allow students from around the world to connect and share information about healthcare challenges and advances.

As the needs for nurses and nurse educators continue, students are turning to online nursing degree and certificate programs to focus their studies. This online specialization can prepare them to teach the next generation of nurses to deliver optimized care. It can also help shrink the impact of the nurse educator shortage along the way.

Rick Zoucha, Ph.D., chair of advanced role and Ph.D. programs and a longtime professor at top-ranked Duquesne University, said online education has improved nursing education because it provides opportunities for everyone, not just students who live close to city centers and large universities.

History of Online Education

Early in the history of online education, universities worked to balance student needs with the limitations of technology and the demands of degree programs. Advances in technology, including faster internet download speeds, wireless connections and real-time collaboration opportunities have provided a path for universities to overcome these early challenges.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic motivated an increase in virtual connectedness and helped institutions increase their focus on online learning, leading to the development of even more robust programs. These elements have led to online education being a viable option for any level of student looking to advance their career.

Online education is steadily growing in popularity. LinkedIn notes that 40% of learning among the American workforce is online. As online education becomes increasingly mainstream, it’s crucial for prospective students to explore the history of online education at the institutions they’re considering to make sure they have a track record of success.

Duquesne University’s Zoucha said the leading online nursing education programs provide a direct link between students and faculty to facilitate an exchange of ideas. Other ways online programs lead to student success include the following:

  • Greater student collaboration — Multiple studies show that students interacting with other students and faculty members improve success rates. For example, discussion boards allow students to reflect on their classwork to reflect on nursing topics thoroughly and thoughtfully.
  • Easier face-to-face interactions — Online learning no longer needs to be a solitary endeavor. Video conferencing tools such as GoToMeeting and VoiceThread allow for real-time collaboration.
  • Access to superior faculty — It’s not enough to have faculty members with advanced degrees. The leading nursing programs have highly educated faculty members who have embraced online learning and the technology that comes with it.

Zoucha also said nursing educators should view themselves as “facilitators of learning” who create learning roadmaps and ways to connect and communicate.

What Do Nurse Educators Do?

Nurse educators are more than just teachers. As role models for the next generation of health care professionals, they are expected to go beyond classroom and clinical preparation. They should have a high level of expertise about the current state of health care, so their students can begin their careers ready to meet the field’s demands.

Some of the key responsibilities of the nurse educator role include:

  • Developing course curricula
  • Instructing nursing students in the classroom and controlled clinical settings
  • Evaluating and improving existing curricula and programs
  • Observing nursing students’ clinical practice
  • Writing grant proposals for program funding

Nurse educators are also required to keep abreast of current trends and innovations within the health care field. One of the ways they can accomplish this is by becoming involved in scholarly work, including contributions to various papers, research projects and peer review opportunities. Nurse educators must be adept at integrating their findings into the context of their curricula.

Successful nurse educators should not only have superior teaching skills (such as understanding the needs of adult learners); they should also have clinical expertise and subject matter mastery. One of the ways they meet these needs is by continuing to practice as nurses.

Nurse educators need to have a unique skill set to prepare the next generation of nursing students. These skills include:

  • Instruction skills — Nurse educators must be able to simplify complex health care topics and theories so students can fully grasp the concepts.
  • Verbal communication skills — Clear communication without room for ambiguity or misrepresentation is vital to providing quality instruction, whether in person or in an online setting.
  • Leadership skills — Exhibiting the skill to guide others through the complexities of health care can help encourage students to put their best foot forward.
  • Patience — Nurse educators must provide enough room for students to learn and grasp concepts at their own pace, even if it’s slower than that of other students.
  • Teamwork — Because nursing is a collaborative field, it’s important for nurse educators to lead in situations that organically foster collaboration.

How to Become a Nurse Educator

The first step in becoming a nurse educator is to earn an undergraduate degree in nursing. Once this is completed, individuals must obtain a license to practice as registered nurse in the state where they intend to practice to gain experience and develop their skills.

The next step toward pursuing a nurse education career is to earn an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Then, individuals can also pursue a post-master’s nursing certificate to further deepen the knowledge and skills to excel in a nurse educator role. Nurse educators also have the option to pursue additional certifications if they wish.

Once an individual becomes a nurse educator, they are required to take continuing education courses at specific intervals to keep their knowledge current. These requirements vary by state, so it is in the nurse educator’s best interest to familiarize themselves with the requirements in their planned state of practice.

Build Up the Next Generation of Nurses

A nurse educator’s work does more than prepare students for health care roles. Their knowledge and skills can help shape the future of patient-focused health care itself. Whether their instruction comes in a traditional setting or an online nursing education environment, the wisdom and guidance they impart can help the next generation of nurses be ready for the twists and turns of health care’s evolving landscape. In preparing future nurses, nurse educators also play a crucial role in reducing the current nursing shortage.

Duquesne University’s online Post-Master’s Nursing Certificate program — and its nurse educator and faculty role specialization — can help you become a trusted teacher of the next generation of nurses. Our program is designed to help you develop your knowledge to an expert level, allowing you to provide critical instruction to each nursing student with confidence.

Learn how we can help you become a leader in a vital field.

Recommended Reading

Harmonizing Nursing Education Worldwide

The Importance of Diversity in Nursing

Trends in Nursing Education: What to Expect for the Future


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Faculty Shortage

Incredible Health, Nursing Continuing Education Requirements by State

Indeed, How to Become a Nurse Educator in 7 Steps (With FAQs)

Indeed, What Does a Nurse Educator Do? (Plus Skills and FAQs)

LinkedIn, “How the Evolution of Online Learning is Driving New Market Opportunities”

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Board of Nursing Professional Licensure Requirements

U.S. News and World Report, “How Online Learning Is Reshaping Higher Education”