Posted by: Greg Johns | November 23, 2010

Creating a Virtual Campus

The College of Nursing and Health Sciences wants its online degree candidates to experience the kind of interaction and sense of community on-campus students typically get—to create, in an online environment, the beginnings of a professional community. To better foster this collegial feel among its more than 500 bachelor’s degree candidates across the nation, CNHS has turned to online technology, including Blackboard, Wimba, and Wikispaces. But it’s not just RN to BSN candidates who will be able to participate in a virtual campus; CNHS’ Doctor of Nursing Program (DNP) also is utilizing online tools to provide a virtual meeting space for new and prospective doctoral students. Kristen Watson, the online RN-BSN Student Affairs Specialist, heads up the RN-BSN Virtual Campus Center. Rrezarta Hyseni, an instructional designer for IT/Educational Technology, has been creating the virtual meeting space for DNP’s doctoral candidates.

Watson and Hyseni both say that the aim of the programs is to provide online students with specific access points for all program information. At Virtual Campus Center, Watson says, students have a place to buy books from one another, find information relating to the semester and class offerings, chat with one another via text or live, and have an interactive space of their own, devoid of professors.

The DNP has its own version of the virtual campus center in a sleek wiki page offering its students a space for acquiring similar program information. The page also allows for “further collaboration and experience” between students and faculty, according to Hyseni. Students have access to more information than what is provided for any one class; students can partake of anything posted by any DNP professor on the page. Hyseni says the goal is to create wide usage among its long-distance learners, as well as a sense of community. “It’s a place where they can share information, not just a place for information to exist, but a place to bring students and faculty together,” she explains. “To further help their collaboration and experiences from their courses.”

One of the most significant components for both degrees when it comes to their online offerings is the live chat which occurs through using Wimba Classroom. Wimba Classroom software allows for real-time conversation online, along with sharing various components from one’s own computer screen. UMass Boston is the only public university in Massachusetts to use the software as a major component to its online nursing degrees.

For RN-BSN candidates, Wimba allows students, within the virtual campus center, a space to talk with one another without fear of professors listening in. “It’s a chance for these students to meet in real time,” says Watson. “I want them to feel like it’s a hallway, where they can talk freely.” Fostering this informal environment helps the program’s success, as well as the success of its students. Wimba is also used for classroom interaction among students. “It’s a way for all nursing students to not feel disconnected.”

 The doctoral nursing program (DNP) makes use of Wimba Classroom for orientation and information sessions. The nursing doctoral program has hosted two open house sessions and one orientation session with students as far away as Washington. DNP records these sessions, placing them on its website and wiki page for anyone to experience should they miss the event. 

While both programs have been relying on sections created in Blackboard to host their virtual student activities, students can lose access when the semester is over unless they are re-enrolled in a Blackboard section.  The doctoral program is therefore developing a wiki, in addition, in an attempt to get around this potential disconnection for the DNP’s long-distance learners and to foster longer term interaction between doctoral candidates and their professors.

Using the technology allows both programs to be more efficient in providing students access points for information and postings. This fact, Watson says, allows administrators to be more productive, instead of fielding the same questions repeatedly or having to mass email all the time. But the hope of both programs is that their virtual gathering places will offer a real sense of community to online learners and, over time, help to shape a professional community among students who are also most often practicing nurses in a variety of clinical settings.

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