Distance Learning Nursing Degrees by Program Level

Find out about online nursing courses and in which degree programs they're most commonly offered. Get course descriptions, program info and career information to make an informed decision.

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Essential Information

Online nursing programs are for licensed RNs. Those who have diplomas or associate's degrees in nursing can earn a bachelor's degree through online courses. Online master's degree programs are available for nurses who already hold bachelor's degrees.

Courses in both these programs are available fully online, but clinical practice requirements must be completed in person. Since these programs are designed for licensed nurses, many times the clinical requirements can be met at the student's place of employment.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program

A distance learning Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree completion program is designed for registered nurses (RNs) who have previously completed nursing school at the diploma or associate degree levels. A distance learning RN-BSN program builds upon the nursing foundations learned in previous programs and expands students' knowledge of professional practices, leadership, research and community concepts. Through upper-level undergraduate coursework, students learn concepts and theories pertinent to professional nursing practice, including historical, cultural, economic, social and legal influences on nursing. Graduates are prepared to provide competent nursing care to individuals and families of all ages.

Program Information

A distance learning RN-BSN program can be completed on a part-time or full-time basis, and the majority of coursework is offered online. Some programs allow classroom coursework to be completed entirely from a distance, while some require students to complete at least one course on campus. The curriculum usually includes one or more practicum courses wherein the student completes a project at a health agency or clinic. Students enrolled in a RN-BSN program can transfer the majority of their credits earned during a 2-year RN program toward the degree requirements. The completion program itself typically requires approximately 30-34 credits of upper division coursework. At some colleges, this may be completed in as little as one year if the student enrolls full-time. Distance learning coursework is conducted online through course management software - such as Blackboard or WebCT - and requires a high-speed Internet connection with access to e-mail.

Common Coursework for an RN-BSN Program

In addition to the core nursing curriculum, students can customize their learning through a number of elective courses. Elective topics may include cross-cultural nursing, end-of-life nursing, healthcare informatics or school nursing.

Community Health Nursing

This distance learning course examines the services, programs and processes involved with promoting and maintaining the health of various populations. Factors such as environment, human response and health status are discussed.

Health Assessment

Learning focuses on the essential nursing skills needed to assess patient health. Topics include health history and physical exam techniques across the lifespan. Students learn to conduct a health appraisal by collecting, recording and analyzing data.

Management and Leadership in Nursing

The theories, processes and behaviors of leadership and management are explored. Students study the leadership role of a nurse in a variety of contexts and settings. Factors that promote or hinder the development of nursing leadership skills are introduced.


Career Information

Job opportunities for nurses are expected to be excellent due to an aging population, advances in patient care and an increased emphasis on preventative care. Employment opportunities for registered nurses were projected to grow at a rate of 16% during the 2014-2024 decade by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Graduates from an RN-BSN program are prepared to transition into leadership roles within their current nursing practice. They may find additional career opportunities beyond entry-level positions. The BLS reported that as of May 2015, the median annual wage for RNs was $67,490.

Continuing Education Information

A bachelor's degree prepares a nurse for master's programs in which he or she can pursue specialized study.


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Master of Science in Nursing Program

Distance learning programs in nursing at the master's degree level provide advanced study opportunities for practicing nurses to expand their knowledge. Graduate-level coursework prepares students for leadership roles within the nursing profession and provides instruction in advanced practice nursing fields. Online graduate programs typically provide specialty concentration tracks, such as clinical nurse specialist, nursing education, nursing administration or nurse practitioner.

Admission requirements include a current RN license in the student's state of practice. Master's students also need a bachelor's degree from a program accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing's Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC).

Program Information

Online master's degree programs provide coursework that can be completed entirely online, with the exception of clinical experiences. Most programs require students to complete a set number of clinical hours in their local communities under the supervision of licensed professionals approved by program faculty. Some master's-level programs require several on-campus clinical courses where students gain hands-on experience and demonstrate competencies. A distance learning master's degree in nursing typically requires two years to complete.

Common Coursework for a Master of Science in Nursing

Graduate online coursework advances clinical nursing skills and introduces students to contemporary issues in today's healthcare system, including multicultural education, healthcare delivery systems, ethical decision making and healthcare organization. Specific course requirements can vary depending on the specialty concentration track.

Advanced Clinical Pharmacology

Students study the properties and principles of common drug categories, including those used to maintain and restore health and treat illness. Topics include possible interactions, compatibilities, adverse effects and proper dosage.

Management of Healthcare Systems Course

Course content examines the theory and practice behind the organization and management of nursing services and health systems. Emphasis is placed on administrative theory, quality improvement, managed care, case management and the transition into leadership roles.

Nursing Research Methods Course

This course covers both qualitative and quantitative research designs for nursing research. Students learn to identify researchable problems within a clinical setting and design research projects that will generate new knowledge. They'll critique a number of research studies.


Career Information

Graduates with a master's degree in nursing are prepared to become advanced practice nurses such as nurse anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners. They may also become nursing educators. Advanced practice nurses typically provide primary care services by working independently and in collaboration with licensed physicians. Most states specifically define licensure requirements for nurses pursuing advanced practice roles, with specific required components varying by state. As of 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median annual salary for a nurse practitioner was $98,190 (www.bls.gov).

Continuing Education Information

Nurses in master's programs can specialize to become nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists. The areas of study for these advanced practice nurses may include mental health, pediatric, public health and adult-gerontology. Advanced practice nurses can pursue certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

After students have achieved an RN degree, they have a number of online bachelor's degrees available to them, which can then lead to more advanced graduate level work. Students will have to complete clinical requirements at a hospital while enrolled in a bachelor's program, and other in-person requirements will vary by graduate program type.

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