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  • Through the Prism: Going Back to School as an Adult

    Wednesday, November 08, 2017

    In this continuing series, "Through the Prism," Professor and Dean Emerita Gloria Donnelly shares insight, laughs, stories and tidbits in her own words.

    “Life is like a prism. What you see depends on how you turn the glass.” -Jonathan Kellerman


    Forty years old, two teenage daughters, a demanding job and I am back in school – this time for a doctorate. Am I insane or just too grounded in reality? Probably the latter, given that I want to spend the rest of my nursing career as a nurse educator. 

    This decision to return to school took place more than 30 years ago. Online was not an option; so, I applied and was admitted to a school with a demanding, but relevant curriculum and a reputation for rigor – against the advice of a few of my nurse colleagues who touted “easier programs.” One of my first courses was statistics, which included trips to the university's computer center to learn how to use some of the new data analysis programs. The professor, who was exceptionally knowledgeable, creative and supportive, would give us assignments to hone our understanding of statistical concepts, while at the same time creating practical exercises in in data analysis.

    I was prepared for my first trip to the computer center – having carefully outlined my work for the data analysis exercise. I noticed that everyone there was so much younger than me – a bit intimidating. The pony-tailed, jean-clad manager of the center, no doubt a student, looked to be 19 or 20. I sat at a terminal, took out my notes and stared at the blank screen. My first course of action was to turn the computer on; I could not locate the appropriate switch.

    I looked around to see who else might need to turn on their machines, but everyone was already diligently at work.  I stood up and looked behind the computer; I ran my hand under the desk to locate the switch; and I examined the back of the screen. No luck. I scrolled through my notes pretending to prepare for the assignment.

    Fifteen minutes later I swallowed my pride, approached the pony-tailed manager and said, “I am new to this. How do you turn the computer on?”  She smiled sweetly and flipped her ponytail, “Ah, come with me. The switches on these machines are a bit hidden.” And with that, she reached for the keyboard and pushed the button that I could not locate. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I focused on the goal – and completed my homework. 

    There are many moments in the life of an older student returning to school when perceived personal inadequacy looms. I learned to ignore it, ask questions and plow ahead. After six glorious years of the best education I could ever have imagined at the time, I was awarded the PhD and continued on my path as a nurse educator and academic administrator. 

    However, having taught online for the past 20 years, I can say unequivocally that I missed out on the conveniences online learning affords: not having to travel to school, to find a parking space, to attend classes in a rigid timeframe; not having all course material available before the class begins, while at the same time enjoying the exchange with classmates through discussion boards or real time online meetings.

    In my in-person program there was no way to archive the wonderful class discussions we had or the lectures the professor gave, so that I could return to them later. Further, the online environment would have protected me from the eye-rolling and heavy sighs of those classmates who use non-verbal communication as put-downs. And, learning online would have forced me to craft and review my responses to difficult colleagues before blurting them out. Indeed, online is not only more convenient, it also creates more time to focus on learning, as well as choices about when to engage with the content – after midnight was my favorite time.

    With three degrees under my belt and years of teaching experience, which option would I select today were I returning to school? First, I would choose the convenience of online and make certain that the program was modern and relevant; the teachers were engaged and qualified; and the courses were well-designed with cutting edge information. I would also expect support with writing papers from a virtually accessible writing center or writing tutors, and I would appreciate the opportunity to converse one-on-one with my teacher from time to time. Program expectations, as well as support for students should be high – after all, you are paying for quality and rigor, not just for a credential at the end of a hollow tunnel.

    When you complete an educational program you should feel, act and be more knowledgeable, confident and skilled.  You should have the ability to think more clearly, write more effectively, articulate the issues and solve problems with more ease. Education should never be “easy,” but it can be wonderfully convenient and enjoyable – online of course. 

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