Practical Nursing Program moves clinicals to virtual simulations

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — When Penn State Lehigh Valley’s current class of Practical Nursing (PN) students started their program in August 2019, they never imagined that they would be seeing virtual patients on their computers in a simulation program resembling a video game.

woman and her two kids at home near laptop

Janiea Butler, practical nursing student, accesses the virtual clinicals from her home with her two kids nearby.

Credit: Janiea Butler

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when all Penn State Lehigh Valley classes moved to remote learning, the Practical Nursing Program moved to the Shadow Health Digital Clinical Experience (DCE) so the students could continue their clinical rotations through virtual simulations.

The Practical Nursing Program, delivered over 18 months via part-time curriculum, runs three evenings per week — two are remote lectures and assignments; one is labs — with clinicals every other weekend. For the labs, instructors are now using videos to demonstrate lab tests and techniques, and the virtual simulations are being used for clinicals.

The first weekend clinical topics covered with simulations included respiratory and cardiovascular; this module also covered head, ears, eyes, neck and throat. Each simulation starts with a concept lab; for cardiovascular, the student heard a normal heart sound and then several abnormal heart sounds. Then each student “examined” his/her computer patient and does a patient assessment (either spoken or typed into the program). The simulation program grades each assessment and provides the student’s transcript and grade to the instructor for review. Upon review, the instructor provides the student with an evaluation.

The instructors providing the student evaluations are the same clinical instructors who were with students at their clinical sites since they started the program. At any step along the way, the students can initiate one-on-one communication with the instructor with any questions. The class uses a Canvas discussion board where students or instructors can ask questions and students can provide feedback to instructors.

“Our goal for the remote learning program is to offer students the same learning objectives in a very different setting,” said Heather Clark, PN program director. “We are thinking creatively to get the students similar experiences to real patient care. With these virtual simulations, the students use critical thinking skills to determine what’s wrong with a patient and what their next steps would be.”

Kim Dooley, a student in the program who graduated from high school 11 years ago, works at a Lehigh Valley-area senior living facility and said she was looking for a focused program where she could keep her full-time position while she pursued her Practical Nursing certificate.

She said it took her a semester to get into the swing of being back in school and, with the transition to remote learning, she was worried about how it would go for her.

“It’s been a pretty smooth transition and a good experience. The virtual simulation guides us and makes us think. The instructors have provided good communications and keep in close contact with us. When I have questions, I get answers quickly from my instructors. When I had a problem connecting via Zoom, an IT staffer was very helpful and worked with me to resolve the problem,” Dooley said. “Overall, I am getting the quality education I was looking for.”

Penn State Lehigh Valley will hold four online information sessions for its Practical Nursing Program:

  • 11 a.m. to noon on Thursday, April 23
  • 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 23
  • 11 a.m. to noon on Friday, May 8
  • 6 to 7 p.m. on Friday, May 8

Information on the program and the application process will be provided. The program’s next cohort begins in August.

The practical nursing certificate program is an 18-month evening and weekend certificate program, which prepares students both academically and clinically for the NCLEX-PN licensure exam.

To attend the information session, register online at PN Information Session form or email Practical Nursing Program Director Heather Clark at [email protected]. For more information, visit the Practical Nursing Program.