MADISON – Katie Mortier knew she wanted to work with children when she graduated from college, but for a long time, she wasn’t sure in what way.

“I started the nursing program at (the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and then transferred to an elementary education program at UW-Oshkosh,” she says.  “After a about a year and a half I decided to go back to nursing.”

Mortier graduated with an associate’s degree in nursing from Fox Valley Technical College in 2004 and began working as a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee soon after.

Still, Mortier remembered another important goal in starting college: to become a nurse practitioner, which requires bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She knew going back to school to earn those degrees while working the ever-changing hours of a new nurse would be difficult.

“I can’t just not work mornings to take classes,” she says. “That’s not what I was hired to do.” Mortier began looking into online registered nurse to bachelors in nursing (RN to BSN) programs, and came across the UW System’s [email protected] program.

The [email protected] program began in the spring of 1996, according to Sharon Nellis, UW-Madison’s School of Nursing assistant dean and the director of the state-wide distance-learning program. The program combines the resources of five UW nursing schools – UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh – to provide five shared distance-learning courses to registered nurses seeking bachelor’s degrees. At the time, each of the five nursing programs had its own RN to baccalaureate program.  

“When it was first being developed, the faculty at each of the five institutions realized, ‘We’re all teaching the same content.'” she says. “We may be teaching it in a different order with different titles, but we’re essentially teaching the five core courses.”  In creating the [email protected] program, the five nursing schools planned an innovative, efficient and sustainable program and curriculum that allowed schools to share resources and work together.

This program met the vision outlined by the UW Board of Regents, whose goal was to create a work force for the 21st century.  The vision called for the creation of a student-centered learning environment, the removal of time and place as barriers to learning and the use of learning technologies on campus and beyond.  The goal of the [email protected] program was to provide flexibility so students could pursue their education without having to relocate or travel great distances to campus.  

In the program, students are admitted and enroll in one of the five institutions, usually the one closest to where they live, and must complete the specific degree requirements of that “home institution” as well as the shared courses of the [email protected] program, Nellis says. Students can be granted up to 60 credits toward their bachelor’s degrees through an agreement between the UW System with the state’s technical colleges.

When the program began, the five core courses were not offered online, but rather at up to 16 satellite locations within the UW System, including at many of its two-year colleges. Nursing students would meet in a lecture room on the campuses and listen to lectures live via audiographics, a system that combines sound and visual aids such as Power Points. As Internet technology became increasingly better and students began requesting Internet delivery, Nellis says [email protected] began in 2001 to shift its courses online.

Now, most of the nursing and general education requirements can be fulfilled online, although students usually take at least one or two courses on campus. The required on-campus courses are often taught with an alternative schedule, Nellis says, describing an example of a UW-Madison required course that meets one full day each month during the semester versus several times per week. Most students complete the [email protected] program in three to five years, she says.

Pam Scheibel, a UW-Madison professor who teaches a Health Assessment course for the [email protected] program, says she enjoys teaching online classes because of the Web’s interactivity.

“When they write and give me a sense of what they’re thinking, I know them better than if I have 40 students in a classroom and I don’t have them write and talk to me every day,” she says. “If I notice they’re going down the wrong path, I can stop it quickly, versus waiting until the midterm exam and figuring out, ‘They’ve built their assumptions on one thing and it’s cascaded down a bit.'”

The lack of in-person interaction was a concern for Mortier at first, but since completing her first semester in the program, she says she has been impressed with each instructor’s interactions with her.

“They were very on top of things,” she says. “You could e-mail them and they’d have an e-mail back to you quickly answering any of your questions. You had phone numbers and you could call them directly – it ended up being nice.”

Moreover, she adds, nursing students can ask fellow students questions quickly and easily via online message boards, increasing the interactivity of the program.

The biggest advantage to offering the courses online, though, Nellis says, is the flexibility it provides the associate degree nurse to earn the baccalaureate degree without disrupting work or family life.

“Some of the comments they have made in our evaluations is that they would have been unable to receive their baccalaureate without this program, especially with it being on the Internet.  Many of these students are married, have families and are rooted in their communities.   They could not have moved or commuted to an institution that offered it,” she says.

Since the program began, more than 550 students have graduated with their bachelor’s degrees. Like Mortier, many of the students in the program are looking to get advanced nursing degrees to become nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists, Nellis says. A 2006 survey of [email protected] graduates revealed that 42 percent have completed or are currently enrolled in master’s programs in nursing, and another 56 percent are planning to enroll in master’s programs.

The online courses in particular have allowed the program to grow by giving students ultimate control in how they manage their classes. While 78 students enrolled in the program in its first semester, current enrollment has ballooned to 305 students this semester, Nellis says. Managing that growth and preparing for more is the current mission of the program.

“People’s lives are so different now than they were 30 years ago. I think there’s a place for the residential students, and that’s great, but I do think that people really like the flexibility of not being bound by time or place,” Scheibel says.