Teaching Online: What Have We Learned from the Pandemic?

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

As the 2021 fall term begins in nursing programs around the country, stopping to reflect upon the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic seems wise. Likely we would all agree that teaching nursing students during a pandemic was as great a challenge as most of us have ever experienced. Turning on a dime, nursing faculty moved fully to online instruction—sometimes even for clinical experiences.

As I write this, the Delta variant is spreading rapidly across the country, along with an increase in the number of people receiving vaccinations. We all hope that the educational environment for nursing will be significantly brighter in 2021, resulting in a return—at least some of the time—to face-to-face instruction and wider opportunities for clinical experience. However, if 2020 taught us anything, it is that unexpected challenges can arise at any time.

Many nursing programs have used a hybrid approach to content delivery for years, and many nurse educators had taught online prior to the pandemic. When the Covid-19 shutdown occurred, this experience prepared nursing faculty to adapt to the stress of providing most or all instruction in an online environment. We hope that, going forward, clinical experiences will return to a pre-pandemic status. However, it is unlikely that online education will cease to be an integral part of  nursing students’ experience. Thus, it is important for us to consider what the pandemic has taught us about online education.

What have we learned?

Letterman (2021) reported on a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research which used a large-scale database from one large public research university to compare how learning in person and online affected students’ course completion rates and grades before and after the pandemic. The report indicated that, accounting for certain differences in student and instructor traits, students in face-to-face courses performed better than their online counterparts with respect to both completion and pass rates. These findings held steady before and after the spring of 2020 when the pandemic became widespread.

McKensie (2020) reported on a survey of 1,413 students registered at a U.S. higher education institution for both the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. The survey found that most students (73%), “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that they would like to take some fully online courses in the future. A slightly smaller number of students, 68%, indicated they would be interested in taking courses offering a combination of in-person and online instruction. Despite the desire for face-to-face classes, 68% of students strongly or somewhat agreed that they would like to see greater use of technology in the teaching-learning process. The use of digital resources is also popular with 67% of respondents indicating they would like an increased usage of these materials.

Turnball, Chugh, and Luck (2021) completed an integrative literature review to identify lessons learned about higher education during the pandemic. The literature reviewed found that students preferred some form of face-to-face instruction. However, blended learning, which combined the benefits of face-to-face learning with online technologies to enrich learning content and delivery, was seen as an excellent option. The opportunity for learners to participate in enhanced online learning communities also provided a sense of connectedness often found only in face-to-face instruction. The blended format provides a framework for retaining the sense of connectedness if a transition to online-only modes of delivery is required again in the future.

Garcia and Weiss (2020) reported that pandemic-relevant research regarding online learning has demonstrated that success in online education is effective only if two conditions are met. First, students must have consistent access to the internet and computers. Second, educators must have recent, targeted training and support for online instruction. Addressing these issues likely requires policy makers and administrators to prioritize these issues to improve online learning.

What can we do to improve online education in Nursing?

The literature suggests that online learning can be successful if students are properly equipped with computers and internet access, educators are competent in the use of educational technology, and students feel connected to the course and instructor. Some of these factors are outside the scope of individual faculty. However, there are some things that each of us can do to improve remote learning for students.

    1. Improve your technology competence. Technological skill is sometimes the area in which nursing faculty feel the least competent, and this can prevent us from fully using digital modalities available to enhance the learning experience. Take advantage of professional development in this area, including completing certification in online teaching or participating in programs provided by professional groups, publishers, and your own employer. Perhaps the most important skill is to be willing to try new things. Only by experimenting will we learn better methods of teaching online. 
    2. Engage your students. Engagement with students as a key to an effective learning process is true in all types of teaching-learning, but the lack of face-to-face interaction in online education makes intentional efforts to engage with students particularly important. Here are some specific strategies to connect even when you do not see your students face-to-face on a frequent basis.
      • Reach out to each student for a 1-to-1 interaction at the beginning of the course. (This may have to be in small groups if you have a large class size.) Use this time to get to know your students by learning about their past learning and work experience, their learning goals for this course, and their aspirations for their professional future. Zoom (or other such technology—or even a simple telephone call) can set the stage for a future positive experience.
      • Communicate with your students frequently during the course, providing timely feedback. Although timely feedback is always desired, when students are at home without much interaction, frequent feedback is critical.
      • Be flexible about assignments. The Sam Houston State University College of Business sent surveys to all their online students asking about their experience learning online during the pandemic. Students indicated they appreciated the faculty flexibility in assignments. While we need to be fair to all students, we also need to use common sense in dealing with student problems. For example, a young friend of mine found that an online assignment during the pandemic would not work on her Mac computer and she was very grateful when her faculty was understanding of her predicament as she tried to find a solution.
      • Be aware of the students’ right to privacy and consider ways to protect their personal, surveillance, and data privacy. We must determine whether we can require students to keep their cameras on or whether we only request that they do so to facilitate their engagement in the learning process.

We cannot know when the next challenge may require nursing education to make a swift change to accommodate a threat to students and patients. We have learned some things that will help us to respond in ways that keep us all safe. However, perhaps the most positive thing we have learned during this pandemic is to be kind to ourselves and to others as we meet the challenges head-on. Kindness to ourselves and others is perhaps the greatest gift we can give.

Here is hoping for a return to some sense of “normalcy” this fall. However, whatever happens I am confident that nurses in general, and nurse educators specifically, will prevail. 


Garcia, E., Weiss, E. (2020) COVID-19 and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy. Economic Policy Institute. September 10. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED610971.pdf Accessed, 2021.

Letterman, D., (2021) Student Performance in Remote Learning, Explored (Imperfectly) Inside Higher Education News. August 6. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/08/06/do-college-students-perform-worse-online-courses-one-studys-answer. Accessed, 2021.

McKensie, L., (2021) Students want online learning options post-Pandemic. Inside Higher Education News.  April 27. 

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/04/27/survey-reveals-positive-outlook-online-instruction-post-pandemic  Accessed, 2021.

Turnbull, D., Chugh, R, & Luck, J.  Transitioning to E-Learning during the COVID-19 pandemic:  How have Higher Education Institutions responded to the challenge?  Education Informatic Technology  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-021-10633-w  Accessed, 2021

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