The New Normal | How the Pandemic Has Changed In-Person Learning for Nurse Educators

Nurse Educators

By Maria Grandinetti, Ph.D., RN, BSBA, CNE

In an environment slowly transitioning to post-COVID life, nurse educators are left with much to consider. Perhaps the first of those considerations is the question, What will our new normal look like?

The worldwide pandemic did more than interrupt our classrooms. For many, it has completely changed our educational paradigm. Having to pivot to remote and hybrid classrooms, setting up virtual clinicals, a new concern for student health (both physical and mental health) — these factors, and more, have given nurse educators reason to pause for institutional self-reflection.

Why do we teach the way we do? What really works and what doesn’t? How can technology make our programs stronger? What lessons can we learn, and how can we improve in the future?

There is no doubt that COVID-19 put our instructors and students under tremendous stress and our nursing programs under significant strain. However, due to dedication, ingenuity, and a willingness to think outside the box, the system didn’t fail. And as difficult as 2020-2021 was, the educational interruption gave us some unexpected opportunities. For example, the pandemic:

  1. Shone a light on vulnerabilities and liabilities in our nursing programs that we might not have seen otherwise
  2. Opened our eyes to new technological advancements we had been slow to embrace beforehand
  3. Showed us the value of in-person classroom interaction that we had previously taken for granted

A lot has changed in our educational space. Zoom meetings, remote assignments, hand sanitizers everywhere you turn — these things aren’t going away anytime soon. However, the importance of personal interaction for learning has not changed. And for this reason, in-person learning is making a comeback.

Whether it is “in-person optional” or “in-person only,” teachers and students will once again connect face to face in a classroom setting. So, what lessons have we learned? What has changed for nurse educators? How has the time away affected us?

Let’s look at five considerations that inform our “new normal” . . .

Nurse Educators as Change Managers

So much has changed over the last eighteen months. In many ways, it’s like we’re facing an entirely new educational landscape. But the changes aren’t over; they will continue. As Heraclitus opined, “The only constant is change.”

In a post-Covid educational program, guidelines will fluctuate; restrictions will be imposed, lifted and imposed again; new technology will be introduced. So change is a constant that educators will have to effectively manage while modeling healthy coping skills for our students.

Thankfully, nurse educators are uniquely accustomed to change. Whether in the clinical setting or in the classroom, nursing professionals are used to adapting and pressing forward. Now, more than ever, that experience comes in handy when presenting in the classroom. We’re change managers now, and that is an important responsibility.

Nurse Educators as Technology Advisors

When you decided to go into nursing, and when you later chose to go into nursing education, I bet you never thought you’d be required to have IT knowledge. Well . . . welcome to the new world.

Educators can no longer avoid technology. Now, we are required to be canny tech consumers and even problem solvers.

Because of our new dependence on technology and the integration of learning management systems (LMS) for administration, it is incumbent upon us to stay up-to-date on the newest advances that can help our students.

While this presents challenges because these issues are often outside of our scope of expertise, it also gives educators unique opportunities to evolve. Thrust into a new technological era, we can embrace innovation that supplements our curriculum and better prepares our students for clinical practice.

Nurse Educators as Advocates for Diversity and Inclusion

During the COVID-19 era, we saw another shift take place, a shift in the culture. The last 18 months have seen a new and long-awaited emphasis on inclusion. Racial, gender, social, ethnic, and sexual equality and equity have been brought to the forefront, and educators are taking notice.

It is not enough that we recognize diversity and inclusion; as leaders for the next generation, it is incumbent upon us to be advocates for inclusion among a diverse student body.

The ways in which we do this are both practical and profound. For example, recognizing Black History Month, understanding a request for non-binary pronouns, embracing social justice causes, opening up the classroom for difficult conversations — all of these things make us better educators and prepare our students to be better clinicians.

The bottom line is this: Cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion in our nursing programs cultivates cultural sensitivity, which leads to improved patient care.

Nurse Educators As Facilitators for Active Participation

Certainly, there were some advantages that came with remote learning — no commute, less frequent meetings, and fewer classroom interruptions, just to name a few. Those perks notwithstanding, we were all reminded of the value that comes with interpersonal connection.

The learning experience just isn’t the same on a laptop or tablet screen as it is in person. Something significant happens when students and teachers share a physical space and embark on the learning experience together.

As students make the trek back into physical classrooms, educators are required to help them acclimate to an environment that seems foreign or unnecessary to them. Students quickly adjusted to remote learning during the pandemic, and there may be a bit of culture shock in their return-to-school reality.

Reconnecting students to one another through classroom interaction, critical thinking exercises, paired discussion groups, or small group assignments will compel engagement and encourage them to be active participants in the learning process.

Nurse Educators as Resource Finders

There was a time when the strength of our curriculum and the brilliance of our instructors was enough. And though the curriculum is still strong and our instructors are still brilliant, a post-COVID reality tells us that students are searching for more.

Supplemental learning tools, test-prep resources, study aids — during the pandemic, students have sought them out to assist in their preparation for high-stakes exams and a life of practice.

This requires a new adjustment for nursing programs and nurse educators. Additional administration and instructional resources are needed to maximize classroom, NCLEX®, and eventual clinical success.

Tools like UWorld’s Learning Platform for Nursing are optimal for students and educators alike. With assignable questions, presentation features, and accessible, up-to-date reporting, administrators can provide students and instructors with an online learning tool that enhances the educational experience.

When a resource decreases instructor workload, increases student knowledge, and keeps administration informed as to individual, group, or cohort success, everyone in the educational equation wins.

As you look ahead to your future in nursing education, change manager, technology advisor, advocate for diversity and inclusion, facilitator for active participation, and resource finder won’t be the only titles you’ll own.

Your career — your calling — will require you to wear many hats in order to best prepare your students for a lifetime of safe and effective practice.

The times are changing, but you are well-equipped for the challenges ahead. We’ll never return to what “normal” was before COVID-19. From this point on, as educators, we’ll work to build a “new normal.” With the accompanying opportunities, there is no reason to believe that’s a bad thing. New normal has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Are you ready to get started?

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