COVID-19 response Online innovation
Meeting students wherever they are
For years, Loyola faculty have taken the lead in virtual learning, expanding the boundaries of what a college course could be
Kiera Hobbs was a veteran nurse looking for a change, for something more. She missed regular patient interactions, having spent the early chunk of her career working closely with the anesthesia team in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Then her mother-in-law developed ovarian cancer, a frightening episode that nonetheless provoked Hobbs’ clinical interest. “I never really saw myself in oncology,” she says. “It’s something that just happened.”
A decade ago, oncology specialization was a niche field in nursing, but one poised for growth—an aging population, the increasing complexity of cancer care, projected nursing shortages. At the time, very few universities offered dedicated training. Loyola University Chicago jumped at the chance to fill the void. Thanks to a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Loyola’s Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing revitalized its oncology track for graduate nursing, and did so employing a fully online format: courses were designed and delivered in a virtual setting while clinical practicums were performed remotely, wherever that nursing student might live. Hobbs enrolled in 2017.
“It was a very specialized group of individuals who wanted to get together and share and learn together in a collaborative environment,” recalls Patricia Friend, an associate professor at Niehoff. For the past decade-and-a-half, Friend has stood on the vanguard of online instruction at Loyola, integrating technology into the educational process while directing the school’s oncology tracks. For three years, she served as Hobbs’ advisor and mentor.
“We were really committed to the pedagogy of inclusivity, creating a community of online learners.”
— Patricia Friend, associate professor, Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing
In the mid-aughts, Internet speed was one of Friend’s primary concerns; she insisted that her classes be synchronous as opposed to pre-recorded. “We’re not using dial-ups anymore,” she says. “It used to drop off once every week.” She utilized learning management systems of all shapes and sizes: Adobe Connect, BigBlueButton, now Sakai. (“My god, those early ones were clunky and difficult.”) And she studied the intricacies of online course development—how to facilitate active learning in moderated discussion threads, how to write successful discussion prompts, how to implement best practices in online testing—at a time when few were doing it.
Hobbs took courses in physiology, pharmacology, and health assessments from her home in the Bluegrass State. “I don’t think I felt isolated,” she says now. “There were quite a bit of videoconferencing, and if there wasn’t a video there was lots of interaction in forums where you would respond to other people’s posts and they’d get back with you in a pretty decent timeframe.”
As a professor, Friend was organized and communicative. “Oh my god, she was awesome.” Hobbs says. “She made the entire experience for me.” Hobbs, for her part, earned the American Cancer Society’s Graduate Scholarship in Cancer Nursing Practice award in 2020, a highly competitive grant. And she did so entirely remotely, 400 miles from the Health Sciences Campus.
From the beginning, Niehoff sought to distinguish its offerings from others in the marketplace that felt slapdash or, in the worse cases, exploitative. Friend prosthelytizes for their approach, which is comprehensive yet pliable. That she trains nurses with busy lives from a computer in Maywood, Illinois is a feature, not a bug.