Navigating CTE During COVID-19: Distance Learning for Nursing

The current COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic and its imprint on the world has impacted education and workforce programs throughout the nation. Administrators, educators and learners are faced with new challenges as traditional classroom education has been largely disrupted and quickly replaced with distance learning. Though this may be the first time that many are using digital learning platforms or online educational content delivery, distance learning programs have been utilized for years and can be scaled or replicated during the pandemic.

The healthcare industry has unique challenges in providing high-quality
distance learning to learners since many of the required coursework is hands-on. Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, the need for a strong workforce of healthcare professionals was critical, with healthcare being one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecasted that between 2018 and 2028, the healthcare workforce
will grow by more than 14 percent. As demographic trends in the U.S. lead to a growing older population, the needs of new health care providers and support professionals will continue to be in high demand. 

Work-based Learning at a Distance 

Work-based learning opportunities and clinical learning requirements are central to many state licensing policies, and a major component of a high-quality Career Technical Education (CTE) program. Virtual clinical simulation technologies offer an alternative opportunity to gain experience with clinical decision-making without requiring learners to be physically present in a clinical setting. This technology can replicate many situations that healthcare professionals would experience by simulating real-world patient interactions and clinical experiences. For instance, learners using this technology through a computer screen or virtual reality (VR) simulator can take a detailed medical history, conduct a virtual physical exam and make clinical decisions in scenarios that would mimic real-life interaction. Additionally, the experiences using these simulators can be standardized, allowing for enhanced ability to examine competency across programs. A  large-scale study on simulation technologies, including virtual simulation conducted by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) found that even in research cohort groups that had 50 percent of their traditional clinical hours substituted by simulation technology, no statistically significant differences were found in nursing licensing exam pass rates.

Competency Based Education and Distance Learning

Competency Based Education (CBE), which awards credit based on proving competency of content and not seat or class time, is also uniquely suited to distance education. As CBE programs are largely self-directed and allow learners to go at their own pace in different environments, they are a unique fit that aligns well with distance learning practices. CBE programs help to ensure quality as course completion is only achieved through demonstrated competencies. As distance learning is expanded, programs based on CBE can offer learners potentially a quicker way to program completion – which translates to a quicker ability to enter the workforce.

Benefits of Offering Distance Learning in Rural Communities

Rural areas face particular challenges and the need for a fully-equipped healthcare workforce. Distance learning presents opportunities for communities that have been historically underserved or have limited options for health sciences education programs in their own communities. Leading states including North Dakota, Idaho, Florida, Lousiana and Nebraska have continued to close access gaps by offering distance learning CTE coursework and opportunities. Some standout examples include: 

  • North Dakota’s Interactive Television program connects learners to remote sites in realtime via video to facilitate distance learning. It’s often used at the postsecondary level to enable students to gain access to coursework they need to earn a certification or degree; 
  • Louisiana launched a multifaceted effort combining technology and hands-on teacher supports to connect rural students with employers; and 
  • Idaho Digital Learning integrates CTE instruction into its online course catalog. Each course is aligned with state standards and facilitated by a certified teacher. 

CTE distance learning presents as a short-term challenge during Coronavirus, however, the work done now can offer long-term solutions to providing each learner in the nation with the opportunity for high-quality CTE.

View the new Distance Learning for Rural Communities Fact Sheet.

Meredith Hills, Policy Associate

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