Online Nursing Instructor: Interview with Annette Sawyers, RN BSN

My Specialty

Online Nursing Instructor: Interview with Annette Sawyers, RN BSN

Providing personalized instruction by phone and Internet

By Keith Carlson, RN, BSN
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Please tell us where you work and the name of your position.
I work for Western Governors University: specifically, WGU Indiana, which is a state school in Indiana. WGU is a totally online, student-competency-based university. My position title is student mentor. And I get to work from home!

    Tell us a little about your clinical nursing experience.
I started my career as a CNA and went directly into a BSN program after high school. I have clinical experience in ortho/neuro (one year), hemodialysis (eight years) and education (seven years).

    What are your responsibilities within your current position?
Generally speaking, I make phone calls, usually scheduled, to students in order to provide support and assistance in meeting academic goals via an online program. I advise students and I serve as their primary source of information about the program, as well as the policies and procedures of the university. My counseling helps students to understand our expectations and to ensure success. Subjects we cover can include time management, identifying weaknesses and strengths and developing a personalized academic action plan. We also communicate about the students’ capstone projects and touch on issues related to career planning.

    Students say that the personalized, individual support is often what directly leads them to success. I don’t get to meet all of my students, but WGU holds commencement ceremonies, where I can often connect face-to-face with graduates.

    How long have you worked in nursing education, and what attracted you to become an educator?
In total, I have about 12 years of experience in nursing education. I have worked in nursing education since I was a staff developer/trainer in hemodialysis, where I taught technicians and nurses to perform necessary procedures to start, monitor and end hemodialysis treatments. I was then able to obtain a position in the statewide community college system, teaching in the fundamentals skills lab, and eventually became a full-time faculty member.

    After the adoption of a special needs son, I stepped out of the workforce for a few years. When looking to return to work, I wanted something that would fit with my busy personal life. I found WGU Indiana, which offers a work-from-home mentoring position that does not require standard 9 to 5 hours, as I have students from all over the United States, in five different time zones.

    All my life, I always wanted to be a teacher, but the opportunities for teaching positions were limited when it was time for me to decide on a career. I believe things happen for a reason. So, I cannot really tell you why I became a nurse. However, in hindsight, my mother would have been in a nursing home at the age of 45 after suffering major complications from a benign brain tumor removal if I hadn’t been a nurse who could move back home to care for her. Now, at the age of 63, she and my dad live every day to the fullest, with minimal support from me.

    You work in online education. How has the technology improved in recent years?
Technology has greatly improved over the last several years. Having been in an online educational arena for only two years, I have seen the textbooks WGU uses evolve into totally online eTexts, so students don’t have to purchase hardback books if they don’t want to. Access to eTexts is improving, too. Soon, WGU students will be able to access anything related to school on laptops, tablets, Kindles and smartphones — truly taking school with them wherever they go.

    Testing from home via webcam is also a benefit of improved technology. This technology has improved enough that it is available to anyone with Internet access. Remote testing fits into the students’ lifestyles, as testing can occur when it’s convenient in terms of the individual student’s personal schedule. Picture identification and biometric typing examples are verification methods used to ensure that the student is truly the one taking the test.

    In your view, what are the benefits and drawbacks of online nursing education?
Benefits of an online nursing education program include the ability of the student to fit school into life, instead of fitting life to school. WGU is uniquely a competency-based program, so students have all the information they need to complete the course and can do so based on current knowledge levels. Also, there are no longer heavy backpacks to carry to class!

    Students prove competency by writing papers or taking examinations. I completed my MSN via an online program and had certain posting requirements: lecture times or scheduled interactions to attend in order to meet the requirements of the course. So, even though my program was online, it still had some “seat-warming” requirements.

    Not everyone is cut out to be successful in an online program. Online education takes dedication and motivation on the part of the student. Students who tell me they don’t have enough time to attend class are sending up a red flag. Just because online programs don’t require seat-warming doesn’t mean that the coursework won’t be challenging. So, students must still find time. WGU says success will require 20 hours a week, as we only offer full-time status for students. A student must be self-motivated to be successful in an online program.

   How has nursing education been transformed by technology?
With the use of high-fidelity simulation, students get a better real-world feel for performing and learning nursing procedures. However, a mannequin cannot replace the first experience of performing a procedure on a real patient.    

  What about being a nurse educator feeds your spirit?
My epitaph will borrow a phrase and say, “Billions and billions of lives touched.” I feel that by being a nurse educator, I touch the lives of all of my students and then indirectly touch the lives of all of their patients and families. So, helping one student achieve their educational goals is what feeds my spirit. WGU allows me to have individual contact with each student on a weekly basis. I get to know my students personally and can tailor my mentoring approach to meet individual needs.

    Do you have goals vis-à-vis your nursing career that you would like to share with us?
Right now, with my chaotic life, I’m perfectly happy with where I’m at in my nursing career. With two sons, ages 10 and 5, one with major special needs, I feel this is where I am supposed to be, and I will wait to see what the future holds.


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