But at 32, she didn’t want to quit her job — or uproot her family — to go back to school.

Now she doesn’t have to, thanks to an innovative program at Bethel University in Arden Hills.

Smith, who lives in Rochester, is studying online how to be a midwife.

She’s one of the first students in Bethel’s new online master’s degree program in nurse-midwifery — one of a handful in the country.

When it comes to delivering babies, there’s obviously no substitute for hands-on experience. But in this case, all the classwork is on a computer screen. The hands-on part comes later.

“From a midwifery education perspective, I think we’re on the forefront,” said Julie Ann Vingers, an assistant professor who helped design the program.

The first class of 14 students, all nurses, started in August. But they didn’t set foot on campus until mid-November, when they gathered at Bethel for a three-day “residency” — one of the few times they’ll actually meet in person.

“Have any of you measured a fundal height on a pregnant woman?” Vingers asked as several students circled around her in a mock clinic. For one of their rare face-to-face encounters, Vingers had invited a “real live pregnant woman” — Stefanie Wernsman, Bethel’s marketing director — to pose as the patient.

Vingers handed the students cloth tape measures and showed them how to estimate the growth of the fetus by the size of the mother’s abdomen. A few students tentatively approached Wernsman, who is expecting her second child in January, and tried out their tape measures.

Then Vingers demonstrated how a handheld sonogram can pick up the sounds of the uterus.

“Hear that whoosh whoosh?” she asked. “That’s the placenta.”

Students need flexibility

In many ways, Vingers says, the online degree isn’t all that different from a traditional one. The students start with the basics: courses in physiology, reproductive health, how to conduct a routine exam. Then come the clinical rotations, where they watch and work with practicing midwives in the “real world.” They have to spend 750 hours in the field over the course of two years, in addition to their classwork, to earn their credentials.

“We do rely heavily on our internships,” said Prof. Jane Wrede, the program director.

The cost is similar to face-to-face programs: $43,000 in tuition for the two-year degree.

The big advantage, Wrede says, is convenience. Most of the students are working adults with busy lives. “They need a little flexibility,” she said, and the online format is tailored “to meet the needs of people who have a lot of other life responsibilities.”

Smith, the student from Rochester, is one of them. A nurse at the Mayo Clinic, she said she jumped at the chance to get her master’s online. “I work full time, and I have a 9-month-old son and my husband works full time,” she said. “The ability to not have to go to classes is huge.”

Not that it’s easy, she adds, noting that she spends four to five hours a day “at a minimum” on her coursework. “It’s basically all of my days off and nights after I get home from work and during my son’s naptime,” she said.

“I do miss face-to-face lectures,” she admitted. “But I’m willing to accept less face-to-face time … to work school in with my life.”

Motivation needed online

Vingers says the professors and students have plenty of interaction, even if they’re not in the same space. They use Google Hangout for live chats, and help is always available by phone or e-mail.

Still, she admits, it can be “a little more challenging” for some. “When you’re an online learner, there has to be a certain level of motivation.”

Jennifer Olson, vice president of mother-baby services at Allina Health, acknowledges she was “a little surprised” when she first heard about Bethel’s online midwife program.

“On the other hand,” she said, “these days in graduate education, they’re teaching a fair amount online.”

Allina agreed to help fund the program’s start-up costs as a way to increase the number of midwives in its own hospitals and clinics, according to Olson. It now has two nurses in the first class and plans to send several more.

“I think Bethel’s got a strong reputation,” she said, particularly in nursing, and she trusts that its midwife program, which has won preliminary accreditation, will be just as exacting.

At the same time, Bethel officials say there’s another reason they hope their program stands out. As a faith-based university, it incorporates what it calls “a distinctly Christian perspective” in its midwife program.

That doesn’t mean that the students must be Christians, said Vingers. “But we are teaching it from that worldview,” she said.

For her, that means including weekly devotional messages to her students and talking openly about faith in class.

“I openly tell my students in e-mails that I’m praying for them,” she said. She sees it as another way to connect with students and to help them connect with their patients.

“We’re not training them to be evangelical missionaries,” said Vingers. “But we are training them to be nurse midwives who care for women in every single way, including spiritual.”