BECOMING an “Onliner”: Students’ Perceptions of Moving from Traditional to Virtual Learning

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Cheryl Killion, Ph.D., R.N.,

Janet Reilly, D.N.P., A.P.N.P.-B.C., R.N and

Susan Gallagher-Lepak, R.N., Ph.D.


Killion, C., Reilly, J. & Gallagher_Lepak, S. (February 2011). Becoming an onliner: Students perceptions of moving from traditional to virtual learning. Online Journal of Nursing Informatics (OJNI), 15, (1), Available at http://ojni.org/issues/?p=139


Online learning is the new and highly coveted pedagogical neighborhood where institutions, educators, and students have been moving. Transitioning from the traditional face-to face to the virtual classroom involves acquiring new skills in multiple domains.  As experience is gained in online learning, skill mastery often occurs across the novice to expert spectrum.  Based on a qualitative study of the experiences of R.N. to B.S.N. nursing students, the theme of “Becoming” an online learner is extracted and described in detail.  The significance of using “cybergogical” approaches to ensure a smooth move to virtual learning is emphasized.  Implications for teaching and learning strategies during this enculturation process are described.

Keywords: online learning, nursing students, R.N. to B.S.N. students, technology, virtual learning


Becoming an online learner is similar to moving from one residential community to another, particularly for adult learners.   Just as moving from a neighborhood to a new and  unfamiliar area requires a series of adjustments, so must online learners make appropriate modifications to fit into, and become engaged in, their new community. After years of enculturation in traditional classrooms, the option for “virtual classrooms” is available, and calls for a shift in learning territory.  The change in milieu requires that new online learners (“onliners”) make alterations in their approaches to coursework and interactions with the instructor and other course participants.  Importantly, neophyte “onliners” must also change the manner in which they learn (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, & Fung, 2004).   Understanding the intricacies of these adaptations is central to developing and offering meaningful online pedagogical (“cybergogical”) approaches (Wang, 2007).  As nurse educators strive to reach, retain, and cultivate high quality and caring professionals, knowing the critical dimensions of students’ transformative learning experiences is paramount.

This article draws from a larger qualitative study, “Nursing students’ perceptions of community in online learning”( Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion, 2009), which was designed to gain an understanding of student nurses’ experiences in asynchronous online learning.   In that study fifteen themes, mirroring students’ perceptions of their sense of comfort and connectedness (Rovai, 2002b) in online courses, emerged (Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion).  The themes reflected structural, processual, and emotional factors.  This article centers specifically on Becoming an “Onliner,” a predominant theme within the grouping of processual factors.  Our goal is not to provide a re-analysis of the original study.  Rather, we provide an in-depth view of the Becoming an Onliner theme which was distinct, yet enmeshed in all of the other themes, and depicted the actual process of transitioning from conventional learning strategies to online modalities.


During the last decade, curricular offerings for online learners have grown tremendously. Online enrollments were up 17 percent in Fall, 2008 from the year before, with about 4.6 million students taking at least one class online, according to a national survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium (Allen & Seaman, 2010).  Universities are increasingly finding Web-based instruction attractive since individuals, who would not otherwise be able to attend post-secondary education or who would not ordinarily attend a particular institution, can be reached (Dunn, 2000; Hill, 2006).  For many students, such as those who are restricted by work requirements, family responsibilities, geographical distance, disabilities, or a combination of these factors, the online environment may provide the only vehicle for advancing their education.  Even students, who reside in close proximity to universities, take full advantage of online courses offered by these local institutions because of the flexibility and autonomy provided.  In point of fact, universities benefit from online instruction since student enrollments can be boosted without increasing classroom or structural requirements.  The highly competitive features, affordability and accessibility, often make online or e-learning a preferred option (Wilson, 2007).

Despite these advantages in online learning, gaining knowledge in cyberspace has created a pedagogical paradox.   Although the technological access to education allows for connecting instantaneously with anyone, anywhere, and with any type of information, reports of students feeling isolated are common, and the attrition rate for students in online courses is significantly higher than in conventional programs despite increasing enrollments. (Angelino & Williams, 2007).  The proliferation of online courses has prompted a closer look at the quality of the learning experience (Thiele, 2003).

The preponderance of research to examine the dimensions of online learning has focused on issues of learning strategies (Hill, 2006), student satisfaction (Richardson & Newby, 2006), and comparisons between outcomes identified with online and traditional curricula (Tallent-Runnels, Thomas, Lan, Cooper, Ahern, Shaw, & Liu, 2006). Minimal empirical evidence is available that specifically focuses on the transition into online learning, however.   An exception is research conducted by Garrison, Cleveland-Innes & Fung (2004).  These authors assert that becoming an online learner is a major role adjustment, and, in fact, an identity change, requiring modifications in the nature of communication and interaction. Moreover, these authors maintain that the interactive complexity of asynchronous collaborative learning is a flexible and open system that requires a different kind of cognitive, social, and teaching presence and brings with it the need for rethinking the role of students (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes & Fung, 2004).  In a similar vein, Motteram and Forester (2005) explored “induction” to distance programmes.  They discussed the opportunities and constraints of the online learning technology; human elements or student needs; and relationships with peers and the role of tutors and the development of online communities.  Although both studies identified pertinent aspects of the transformative process, neither study rendered specific insights or recommendations about establishing a bridge between conventional learning and online learning, however.

Even with the explosive use of online and web based learning opportunities in nursing, little research has been conducted on the actual process of moving from one learning paradigm to another, particularly within nursing education.  This chasm persists despite concerns expressed by some educators about the quality of online learning, the capacity to influence values and professional behavior, and the ability to teach critical thinking and other core constructs of nursing online (Hyde & Murray, 2005; Holley & Taylor, 2009). The disparate views about the advantages and disadvantages of online learning and the lack of empirical data about the process of becoming an online learner are grounds for further examining this transitional period.


In this article one theme, Becoming, drawn from the study, Student nurses’ perceptions of sense of community in online learning is highlighted (Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion, 2009). A summary of the methods used for that study are herewith presented, and a more detailed description can be found in Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion. Focus groups, optimal for capturing the authentic sentiments and expressions of participants, maximizing candor, and facilitating spontaneous group dynamics, were used to tap the students’ responses (Burns & Grove, 2005)).  To allow for a range of geographic participation, the focus groups were convened through teleconferences.  During a three week period, five focus groups, comprised of three to four participants per group, were conducted.  This relatively small sample, consistent with recommended focus group size, ensured detailed responses and full and comfortable engagement by all participants (Krueger & Casey, 2009).

Registered nurses (RNs), completing their Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN) at a major university system in the Midwest, comprised the sample. After Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was secured, participants were recruited through electronic student newsletters and news postings in online nursing courses.  Study criteria required that participants had completed two or more online courses.  Participants were scheduled into a focus group after signing a consent form and completing a demographic questionnaire.

Each focus group, guided by eight open ended questions, lasted approximately ninety minutes and was facilitated by two moderators who were experienced in group dynamics.  Focus group sessions were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim into print.  To facilitate coding and to identify themes, a modified version of the LaPelle’s (2004) technique was used.  Code validation was performed by comparing assigned codes and participant responses among the three researchers. Theme narratives, including a text description of the theme and participants’ quotes, were developed to further illustrate each theme.  In addition themes were verified by having focus group participants review and confirm credibility of the themes.


This article reports the demographic findings and the emergent fifteen themes from the original study.  The theme of Becoming is examined with detailed descriptions of the students’ transformative experiences, and distinct phases within this process are presented. Participants from the study (N= 18) (Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion, 2009) were drawn from states representing eight geographical regions throughout the United States. The participants were predominantly female (89%), white (100%), and ranged in age from 25 to 54; fifty percent of the participants ranged in age from age 45-54.  All participants (100%) were part time enrollees in an RN to BSN Completion Program. A total of 56 % were employed full time.  Participants had completed between two and twelve courses prior to participating in the study.

In the original study, fifteen themes, reflecting students’ perceptions of sense of community in online courses, surfaced (Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion, 2009).  To facilitate explication of the themes, they were organized into structural, processual, and emotional factors. Accordingly, structural factors included the themes: Class Structure, Required Participation, Teamwork, and Technology; processual factors included the themes: Becoming, Commonalities, Disconnects, Etiquette, Informal Discussion, and Mutual Exchange; and emotional factors included the themes: Aloneness, Trepidations, Unknowns, Nonverbal Communication, and Anonymity.  Detailed descriptions of the themes are presented elsewhere (Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion)

Processual factors, including the theme, Becoming, underscored the dynamism of the learning experience as well as the learning environment.  These factors constituted the actions or mechanisms which promoted learning and built confidence, though some disconnects were experienced.  The themes, deemed as processual, built upon the structural aspects of online courses.  Clearly, the organization of the class, presentation of course materials, nature of instructional strategies, level and types of interaction with other class participants, and technological mediation set the stage for the manner in which online courses were approached and learning occurred.  Moreover, processual factors were tempered by emotional factors.  Initial feelings of alienation and fear of the unknown dissipated as the process of online learning became more familiar.  Maintaining a balance between these two distinct dimensions, structural and emotional, was a critical part of transitioning into online learning.

Becoming emerged not only as a pivotal processual factor, but also as a dominant theme which transversed structural, emotional, and other processual factors.  The process of Becoming undergirded the core experience of every individual who was involved in online learning.  In this study the theme, Becoming, was depicted as a socialization process whereby participants learned the idiosyncrasies of technologically mediated instruction; adopted its customs, requirements, and rules; mastered the course content; and simultaneously monitored self- disclosure. This tedious juggling of new skills is noted to be particularly challenging for the adult learner (Coombs-Richardson 2007, Reay, Ball & David 2002, Zemblylas 2008).   Three discernible phases were identified as constituting the theme, Becoming:  Disengaging (from the conventional approach), Getting into the rhythm, and Assuming a new identity.

Disengaging (from the conventional approach)

Figure 1: Moving to Cyberspace: Becoming an Onliner

As students became engaged in the logistics and particulars of online learning, their initial and ongoing reactions were to compare and contrast this unfamiliar approach with conventional classes.  “It was like, what to expect and how does it work?  It’s (online learning) a different world.”   Said another student, “I would say, in the beginning you feel rather isolated until you start learning the personalities.  It takes a little bit longer because of the computer language and the fact that you are just looking at a screen of letters.”

Students did not quite know what to expect, however, misperceptions about online courses were dispelled as they enrolled in each course and become more accustomed to this approach of learning: I thought it would be less interactive, and more isolating than it turned out to be.  That first semester was kind of, just kind of getting my feet, you know, getting my sea legs and getting comfortable with it.” Another participant commented about her initial experience online:

My first class, a couple of years ago, my online class, I was totally lost.  It was a totally new style of learning for me.  I had only been out of nursing school for two years, so I was used to the classroom. I was used to the classroom setting, and my first (online) courses totally changed.

During the participants’ first experience with online classes and throughout the process, they identified pros and cons of the virtual versus the traditional classroom.

I feel like I had to use up a lot of attention in the beginning just to learn the school site, the instructor, how they lay out the format, their syllabus.  You know to me, especially in the very beginning when you’re an old codger, like I  am, you go back, and now it’s not live, it’s a computer,… which is so much fun. There was a lot of intimidation with all of it.  It definitely gets easier, but it’s very overwhelming.

More than one half of the students were thrilled about the convenience and other aspects of online learning; however, the artificiality of online courses was of particular concern for some, requiring major adjustments. In Conrad’s (2002) interpretive study of the nature of online community, respondents referred to some online courses as having ‘stilted ambience.’ Respondents acknowledged that a primary challenge was the difficulty of conveying meaning in the typed, versus spoken word, which was void of body language, specific enunciations and intonations, and all other nuances of speech and everyday conversation.  The fact that students must be deliberate in overcoming the negotiated or situated environment resonates in other studies focusing on online learning (Conrad 2002; Rovai 2002).  Regardless of interest or initial aptitude for becoming an “onliner,” after students completed their first online course or enrolled in more online courses, a number of them indicated that they actually preferred “this (online) type of learning” once they “got into the rhythm.”

Getting into the rhythm

Beyond the students’ distinguishing online from conventional learning, navigational proficiency was required to master the techniques, as well as the content.  Not surprisingly, there was wide variation among students in their ability to maneuver online learning at the onset and to make the transition.  In an effort to explain the range of responses and adeptness in acquiring online learning skills, one respondent reasoned that some students simply had a propensity for learning online while others were more comfortable with conventional courses.  This was borne out in the literature. For example, in a study conducted by Shinkareva and Benson (2006), the investigators found that an interest in instructional technology was one of the primary reasons for students enrolling in online courses.  Our findings revealed that the journey was especially trying for those who claimed to be computer illiterate, though challenges extended beyond technology: “I had a class this semester and I was really lost all semester.  I just couldn’t get into the rhythm…. I just felt there was poor communication between the professor and the students.”

A number of students were pleasantly surprised by the scope and different nuances of online learning, while others described it as stressful and overwhelming: “I wanted to pull out my hair!” and “It was a nightmare!”  Two students said that they were initially clueless and lost, while others found online course-taking to be fun and “amazing!”  Negative statements and expressions of uncertainly were eventually minimized.   The students were able to establish a personalized system, a learning routine that was congruent with the flow of the course and an adapted version of the student’s usual style of learning.   For example, one student indicated that she did not completely trust technology.  Consequently, she printed out everything and developed large binders of assignments and course materials and kept abreast in that manner.  Another student, initially insecure about the quality of her responses, posted excessively until she received reassuring feedback and compared the quality of her responses with those of other class participants.  Also, one student was concerned about the transferability of format and navigational skills from one course to another:

Once you get involved in the course, and you kind of know what to expect.  You sort of adapt to that, whatever that system is that you need to adapt to. But across the courses,  you don’t really have that consistency as you move through each course.

Other more technical strategies involved breaking tasks into workable segments, printing out hard copies of postings, messages, and instructions, or assignments; logging in on a regular basis, allowing enough time to complete tasks, and gaining computer skills. With these strategies and repetitious tasks, online learners purportedly gained more confidence and were more successful in their coursework.

While these concerns and strategies represent specific ways of doing the discovery work of the courses, they also signal that students were independently taking responsibility for their own learning. These self directed efforts represent the students’ ability to recognize the unique features of the new medium and their inclination to capitalize on its inherent learning opportunities to achieve the intended educational goals.  As such, the majority of students initially vacillated between being a conventional and online learner.  Students retained many of the expectations and strategies used in the traditional classroom, yet applied them simultaneously as they gained confidence with online skills. Eventually, conventional approaches were either discontinued or altered as students acquired knowledge about, skill with, and acceptance of technology; new modes of communication with instructors and peers; and a new ‘place’ for learning in time and space.  Learning, by way of online courses, was definitely perceived by the students as a challenge, albeit, one that could be mastered.  Interestingly, the participants all expressed that they felt confident as online learners and in using the skills deemed necessary for online instruction after completing several courses.

Assuming a New Identity

Confidence and competence came for each student as they honed their navigational skills in the virtual classroom.   Strategies for adopting the nuances of online learning were quite varied and became individualized as students engaged in trial and error approaches, sought help from others and collaborated with their peers:   “It’s difficult to build.  Typically, you start from the basics and build on that.” Another stated:  “As I have taken more courses, I see more familiar names, and I feel we’re still in this together.  A lot of people are going through the same thing that I’m going through.  I felt better about it as I took more classes.”  Success and satisfaction in online learning could be achieved primarily, however, by becoming totally immersed in the process since one “gets as much out of it as one puts in to it.”  Also:  It all goes into effort.  If you truly are putting an effort into it, you can glean a lot of information from a course.  But you know, if you just dabble in it, what you sow is what you reap.”  Immersion in the process of taking the courses online promoted self confidence and efficacy and ultimately won over the majority of students.  Respondents emphasized how critical it was to get involved in all aspects of the courses.  “Speaking up” and not taking a passive role were important:  “I just figured, like learning this way, the only way you’re really going to get to know anybody or begin to associate people with each class is if you start taking a chance and speaking up a little more and getting involved.  …I don’t know if there’s any other way.”

Also, “Asking for help” and “reaching out to others” for assistance were emphasized by the participants as critical in the process of becoming an online learner.  One respondent indicated that, “When people were offering encouragement …I realized that I could do this… It was a big shock!” Help was sought from several sources.  Another participant, for example, enlisted the help of her son in the privacy of her home:

It takes a while for you to even be able to participate fully in the class until you muster getting into the class, and working your way around the course page and all the abilities you have to have to get your paper in, your assignments that aren’t necessarily on the discussion board.  The drop box – that was a nightmare. I had no idea what to do with the drop box, the very first class. My son was 10 at the time.  He helped me because I was clueless.  I had no idea what to do – none!  I was so lost.

Further, it was suggested that because all the course participants were nurses, their commonalities coalesced their learning experience.   The nurses may have been more empathetic toward one another in the learning process and more willing to provide support and assistance than had course participants been from other disciplines: “I think the support of each other…. I’ve posted it:  ‘I’m new at this.  Bear with me….  And the support is overwhelming. You know thankfully the nature of what we (nurses) do.” Another respondent reinforced the importance of collegial support and assistance:The experienced nurses really did help out a lot by their posts.  It helped guide me with what kind of a conversation we were supposed to really be having.” This modeling, from more seasoned “onliners,” was another dimension that facilitated the taking on of the “onliner” role.  With the guidance and feedback from instructors and experienced “onliners,” the students mimicked specific operations and practiced newly learned tasks.  These actions helped move the participants along a learning continuum from novice to “expert” as many professionals tend to learn (Daly, 1999).   Adjusting to the requirements, skills and options of becoming an online learner within a supportive and resourceful community allowed the participants to effectively modulate the dimensions of their new role. They managed their newly discovered independence but realized their time needed to be managed differently and new priorities set.  Moreover, they were keenly aware of their dependence on others and their reliance on technology.  They were able to acknowledge their interdependence with others and the new “machinery” which allowed them to embrace a new way of knowing.  A mutual exchange was engendered that helped each participant realize that they had the capacity to contribute as much as they received.  As these revelations unfolded and fresh competences were acquired, a new learning identity emerged for each participant.


The educational process has been revolutionized by online instruction and learning.  The adoption of this mode of education has required disciplines to rethink their assumptions, practices, and commitments (Blair & Hoy, 2006).  While most universities have aggressively adopted this instructional approach, the quality of this mode of instruction has not been a major research focus.  Investigators have shown limited interest in the impact of online learning on students, as well.   Moreover, the student experience of moving from a traditional learning paradigm to a cyberspace learning neighborhood, has received minimal consideration.

Increasingly, schools of nursing are requiring courses in information technology, and knowledge in this area has been designated as a core competency in nursing by national and global organizations (AACN, 2008; NLN, 2008; PWC, 2009).  Knowledge about information technology is certainly foundational for facilitating the online learning experience, but does not necessarily translate into deep learning or a successful and satisfying online educational experience. Despite the inclusion of information technology content in schools of nursing curricula, significant gaps exist in skill level and ability to readily master online coursework.  Moreover, resistance to online instruction persists, despite its growing popularity (Ullrich, 1998) Nontraditional students, particularly adult learners who have been out of the academic setting for some time, are often bewildered because they have not been privy to the instructional advances associated with online learning.   These findings begin to close the gap identified by Rourke (2009) and Garrison, Cleveland-Innes & Fung who indicate that the thrust of investigative interests related to online learning has been focused on factors that are only marginal to the success of the prospective learner.

In the study, “Student perceptions of community in online learning,” (Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly & Killion, 2009) collective responses of participants shed light on the actual process of Becoming an online learner.  Eighteen respondents enrolled in online courses of an RN to BSN program expressed what it was like to experience the shift from one learning approach to another. Despite the limited number of participants and the lack of diversity within the group, the perceptive responses of sample members have the potential for enhancing preparation for, and development of, online instruction for a full range of programs. Respondents described a highly individualized process, which reflected identifiable phases associated with the online learner socialization process.  These phases reflect a negotiated progression into a new learning community.  Acquisition of new knowledge was achieved through formal instruction as well as informal discussions, sometimes outside of the virtual classroom. In the process of developing the skills to become an online learner, the art of presenting self as a “real” person, and seeking authentic exchanges with others within the realm of a virtual learning environment was mastered. Finally, investment in the emergent role transpired as more time and intellectual energy were expended to meet course demands and allow for taking on a different identity and commitment to a new learning milieu.

Clearly one’s repertoire of learning is expanded as a result of becoming a transformed learner.  Research related to the extent to which the online paradigm can optimize nursing education is limited.  Most available studies yield findings that support the inclusion of online learning as a major component of nursing instructional approaches (Robley, Farnsworth, Flynn, & Horne, 2004; Whitehead, 2009)  By examining the process of Becoming, the findings from our study provide insight into the socialization dynamics of learning.  Comprehending this process provides the opportunity to target specific areas for pedagogical action.  Further, we can draw from these findings to identify areas for consideration for both the learner and the instructor.  For example, the participants emphasized the significance of allowing ample time and having adequate resources in preparation for online courses.  Having computer literacy and knowledge of course expectations were basic to successfully mastering navigational nuances as well as course content.  A self defined sense of readiness was essential for propelling learners forward as decisions were made concerning timing and level of online instruction.  Beyond these general approaches, an appreciation of the nature of nursing is central for engaging in and developing online instruction.  Learning experiences should be structured in a manner that will promote reflection, critical thinking, and deep learning.   Particular attention should be focused on developing strategies that will convey caring and other major constructs specific to nursing.  It is critical to acknowledge that not all courses are amenable to online instruction, nor should online learning be viewed as a replacement for conventional learning.

Becoming an online learner requires packing old strategies of learning and transporting them to the new learning community.  Some of the traditional approaches may be readily used there; however, many must be discarded or placed in storage. Getting into the rhythm and acquiring new online skills is essential to success in the new online community.  Progressively, confidence and a new identity as an “onliner” will develop.  Innovative and hybrid instructional methods should be considered and strategic positions found.  Former learning peers may assist online learners in the move, but new, welcoming partnerships must be available to provide an orientation to the new learning environment.   Making the move to cyberspace teaching and learning can be a smooth operation. An optimal transition depends on one’s willingness and ability to confront challenges and embrace the many opportunities that lie ahead in virtual learning.


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Author Bios

Cheryl Killion, Ph.D., R.N.

Chery is an Associate Professor in the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University. As a nurse anthropologist, Dr. Killion has conducted research in urban settings within the United States and Belize.  Currently, she teaches qualitative research, community based participatory research, and global and cultural aspects of health and illness.

Janet Reilly, D.N.P., A.P.N.P.-B.C., R.N.

Janet teaches pharmacology, health assessment and community and public health practicum to online BSN completion students at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.  She applies what she has researched in the concepts of sense of belonging and the sense of community in nursing students in her courses through instructor/student and student/student interaction and social networking tools.  Dr. Reilly continues to see patients in urgent care as a family nurse practitioner.

Susan Gallagher-Lepak, R.N., Ph.D.

Susan is an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  Susan received a Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Masters in Nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She is a Licensed Psychologist and Registered Nurse, both in the state of Wisconsin.  Prior to joining U.W.-Green Bay, she worked as psychologist with a specialization in brain injury and in various nursing positions.  Dr. Gallagher-Lepak’s professional writing and research has focused on quality of life and adjustment to chronic illness, clinical issues, and online learning.

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