Social distancing guidelines help protect student well-being while COVID-19 poses health risks. They also present an urgent need for universities to take creative measures when offering hands-on learning experiences. Fortunately, virtual clinical placements are one way to let students participate in patient or client cases remotely.
While the need for these placements rose considerably when the COVID-19 pandemic began, demand for them is not new. Many online students live in rural communities without nearby placement facilities. These learners have long needed ways to complete part or all of their placement requirements in a remote format.
Adapting In-Person Learning for Virtual Environments
Many programs incorporate field placements to let students apply the concepts covered in class in real-world settings. Several programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels culminate with these experiences, including:
- Clinicals in nursing programs
- Practicums in social work programs
- Student teaching in K–12 educator programs
Universities often coordinate these placements with partner organizations, such as hospitals and school systems. Students pursuing online programs may not live near their school, so universities need to work with a much larger group of partners. That’s why forward-looking universities are developing nationwide networks to help students engage in applied learning, no matter where they live.
With the COVID-19 pandemic creating roadblocks to many placements, universities have needed to adapt even further. In April 2020, Imperial College London leaders advocated for virtual clinical placements as long as COVID-19 poses risks to students. They highlighted how interactive cases let students engage in numerous exercises safely at home, such as reviewing patient records and the results of physical exams. Students can also use video tools to interact with patients and discuss what they learn with a clinical supervisor.
Julie Delich, Vice President of Retention and Student Support Services at Wiley University Services, agrees that virtual placements offer considerable value, highlighting the spectrum of learning experiences that they provide.
“Virtual placements offer an advantage because students get access to specialized cases and scenarios they may not encounter in local clinics or hospital settings,” Delich said. “Students also engage in some clinical deep-thinking and critical thinking that they can discuss with a specialty clinician.”
As outlined in Nursing Times, two universities in England pivoted to remote clinicals in response to COVID-19 restrictions. The universities use video platforms that give students a virtual option for participating in patient interactions, including prenatal exams and checkups for infants and children. They also rely on “case studies, podcasts, and role-play scenarios” to further navigate barriers to in-person clinical learning.
Understanding Licensure Requirements Nationwide
Governing bodies that oversee licensure are offering flexibility to help students complete their hands-on learning requirements while following social distancing guidelines, and virtual options play a central role in bringing this to fruition. For instance, the California Department of Consumer Affairs detailed how an executive order allowed nursing students in the state to complete more of their clinical hours through simulations and remote casework. Joanna Vaickus, Director of New Launches at Wiley University Services, said these kinds of decisions will prove vital as the U.S. addresses COVID-19 and public health challenges.
“There has been an outcry to the nation that we need more healthcare professionals,” Vaickus said. “By adjusting requirements without sacrificing quality, more healthcare professionals from across the country are available to help.”
In the nursing field, a national response to COVID-19 goes beyond virtual placements. Licensure flexibility allows recent graduates to practice in states where they’re needed most. For instance, the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) enables nurses to practice in 33 member states without obtaining a new license. This change makes it easier for nurses to cross state lines to deliver care in communities with rising COVID-19 hospitalizations.
These and other similar changes put an onus on universities to understand licensure requirements for multiple states if they educate online students throughout the U.S. That’s especially important for universities that follow guidelines set by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA).
“NC-SARA recently said that universities must take a more active role in providing detailed information to students on the licensure requirements for their state,” Delich said. By meeting this requirement, universities can help students keep pace with changing guidelines and adapt to a job market that is heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Virtual Clinicals vs. Traditional Clinical Requirements
In the short-term, universities should prepare to answer questions about how they’ll help students complete placements and practicums with minimal health risks. Additionally, many students will likely inquire about how virtual placements instill the competencies needed for their career field. Delich said universities need to demonstrate their plans for achieving positive learning outcomes while helping students meet their placement requirements safely.
“Working with students as early as possible shows that you are committed to their success,” Delich said. “This way, you can guide them through the entire placement process, from submitting paperwork to turning in the final required documents.”
Delich and Vaickus outlined additional ways to help students navigate barriers to placements, such as:
1. Offering Placements Where Students Work
Many universities do not allow students to complete fieldwork and clinicals with their current employer. However, they may boost flexibility by easing restrictions to let students meet placement requirements in a different department or with another supervisor. For instance, a student pursuing a master’s degree in social work could complete their practicum while working with a manager supporting clients unrelated to the student’s caseload.
2. Placing Multiple Students in Each Setting
Some universities limit how many nursing students can complete their clinicals in a facility at once. This restriction can prevent students from completing their programs on their preferred timeline in communities with a limited number of placement facilities. Eliminating this restriction whenever possible gives students much more control over when they graduate and enter the workforce.
3. Developing Virtual Labs.
Placements aren’t the only applied learning experiences that students can complete virtually. Students can also engage in virtual labs using virtualization software and other cloud-based simulation systems. This option will prove beneficial for online programs and if campus closures cause students to lose access to physical lab spaces.
Delich stressed that universities must consider learning outcomes as they explore these options, including virtual placements. “It’s critical to look at the skills that students need to acquire. To learn certain tasks, they will need to be physically present. But in most cases, students can absolutely acquire critical and clinical thinking skills in a virtual setting,” she said.
Virtual Clinicals: The Opportunity for Higher Education
Organizations are innovating ways for students to access learning experiences that will help address the challenges that made social distancing a necessity. For instance, Delich pointed to telehealth as a safe way for students to engage with patients while supervised by clinicians.
“While COVID-19 has been difficult and painful, it has challenged us to think differently,” Delich said. “Now, we’re getting creative and looking at more ways for students to develop crucial skills.”
That creativity includes forming placement agreements with large health organizations. These organizations often have facilities in multiple states. By partnering with them, universities get access to facility placements for geographically diverse populations of online students.
At the same time, universities can streamline how hands-on experiences fit into a student’s learning continuum. One approach is to infuse applied learning into stackable credentials that let students build toward a degree by earning micro-credentials and completing certification programs. This approach could appeal to working professionals by offering virtual placements that fit more easily into busy schedules.
“Universities should be open to new possibilities for students. Offering these placements virtually can still produce the same learning outcomes, which is ultimately the goal,” Delich said.
Get the Support to Adapt and Thrive in Higher Education
Universities have numerous opportunities to tailor clinical placements around changing student needs. By partnering with Wiley University Services, you can benefit from a network of preceptors and site supervisors based throughout the country, along with support staff who collaborate with your students and faculty to foster successful placement experiences. Contact us to learn how our Field Education Specialists streamline the placement process and help innovate ways for students to meet their clinical requirements.