September 24, 2010

E-Learning and Health Professional Education

by Nicholas Fusco, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center
“Everyone take your seats. Let’s get started. We have a lot to cover today.”
As the lecturer quickly goes through their outline and objectives for the class, you frantically try to organize your mind for the impending deluge of information. Physiology, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, clinical guidelines, monitoring parameters, adverse effects and the list goes on. The lecturer unflaggingly presses forward as your wrist begins to cramp from scribbling down each bit of seemingly invaluable information. Soon, you realize you may have missed something and turn to your neighbor for help. You look to the left and find your best friend in Stage 1 of non-REM sleep. You turn to your right and find another classmate starring helplessly at the board, jaw slightly dropped, eyes glazed and you wonder if you should check his vital signs. While all this has transpired, the lecturer has moved on. No time for stragglers. Every student for themselves! Before you know it, the lecture is over. You’re left floating in a sea of new information. I hope you can swim (or at least brought a raft).
Sound familiar? Traditional, instructor-centered teaching placed the teacher in control of the learning experience. Increasing demands on academic faculty to accommodate the ever-expanding field of biomedical science and to incorporate new fields of practice has challenged the way in which they deliver this information. Emerging from these challenges is a new, learner-centered model that allows the student to be in control of their learning experience. One vehicle by which information can be delivered that supports the learner-centered model is that of “E-learning” or Web-based learning. E-learning is the use of any Internet or computer-based technology as a source of instruction. It can be broken in to two broad categories of distance learning and computer-assisted instruction. Distance learning describes those technologies that allow for the delivery of information to remote sites from a central location. Computer-assisted instruction utilizes one or more sources of multimedia to aid in the delivery of information. These terms are not mutually exclusive, nor do they need to be separated from traditional, instructor-led learning. In fact, most instructors already take a blended approach, supplementing a traditional lecture with online or computer-based aids.

The advantages of E-learning can be summarized in two main categories, learning delivery and learning enhancement. For the student, well-designed E-learning scenarios increase their accessibility to the content, allows them to customize their learning experience and control the pace, time and even the media by which the instruction is delivered. For the instructor, the ease by which online multimedia can be updated, distributed and standardized sets it apart from traditional print media. Learning enhancement is less well described, but is just as important as learning delivery. As more institutions embrace competency-based curricula, a greater emphasis is being placed on learning outcomes. By allowing the student greater accessibility and customization of online multimedia, E-learning supports a more efficient learning process. Based on it’s interactive nature and the degree of control that the student exhibits over the delivery of the content, E-learning can potentially motivate the student to become more engaged with the content and through this increase retention rates.

A unique challenge of E-learning is in its evaluation. As more learning becomes student-based, the instructor’s role will evolve from a transmitter of information to a facilitator / evaluator of learning. The process of E-learning must be closely evaluated to determine whether the experience was appropriate, well designed, and met the needs of the students that it was intended for. Likewise, outcomes must be measured to determine how efficiently E-learning was able to alter a student’s knowledge or skills. It is important to make a distinction at this point between learner satisfaction and efficacy. E-learning should be interacting and engaging, which certainly will provide some degree of entertainment to the learner. Subjective evaluations of E-learning may yield high levels of learner satisfaction if the experience was fun or entertaining, and may falsely lead the instructor to believe the learning experience was efficient or effective. Poor content can be masked by an entertaining design and may lead to ineffective learning. It is therefore important to develop effective, instructor-mediated strategies for the evaluation of outcomes of E-learning. In many health care professions, the preferred technique for evaluation of skills is direct observation. This can be time consuming, costly and inefficient. A combination of web-based competency evaluations combined with direct observation may allow the instructors to perform a more thorough evaluation of the student’s knowledge, while still engaging the student in traditional, face-to-face assessments. Further development of this area is needed and may potentially be a source of scholarship to academic faculty in the future.

E-learning offers several advantages to both the student and the instructor. Wouldn’t it have been nice to be able to press “Pause” during some lectures to recollect your thoughts before moving on to the next, big idea? Customization of learning experiences may better accommodate different learning styles, which can simultaneously enhance the learning process and improve outcomes. As E-learning becomes a more integral part of health professional education, students and instructors will benefit from this vehicle to navigate the great sea of knowledge.

Ruiz JG, Mintzer MJ, Leipzig RM. The impact of E-learning in medical education. Acad Med 2006;81:207-12.
Leung WC. Competency based medical training: review. BMJ 2002;325:693-6.
Ward JP, Gordon J, Field MJ, Lehmann HP. Communication and information technology in medical education. Lancet 2001;357:792-6.

[Editor's Commentary:  E-learning includes a range of electronic tools (hardware and software) that are employed in the learning process. When most people think about e-learning, they immediately think of computers connected to the Internet but it also includes mobile devices like cell phones and MP3 players … as well as a range of software tools, increasingly web-based applications.  Mobile computing devices and the Internet have revolutionized the way we can deliver instructional materials.  But is this new delivery method better or worse than older methods of deliver (namely, oral expository in a classroom and written materials in the form of books, journals, and handouts)?  This dichotomous question, is e-learning better or worse than traditional methods of learning, forces us to think in terms of either/or rather than examining things in a more holistic manner.  Most instruction delivered through an e-learning conduit is no better or worse than the face-to-face methods it is attempting to “replace.”  Indeed, most instruction delivered online is merely a replica of what would have been delivered had the learner been seated a few feet in front of the teacher. Perhaps the biggest advantage of e-learning is that it often can increase availability and access.  Most e-learning materials are available to students in an enduring way – and accessible from any computer 24/7 anywhere in the world.  Face-to-face instruction often enjoys an advantage with regard to greater social connection and interactivity – thus the transactional distance between the teacher and learners (and among learners) is smaller.  Clearly an important benefit.  Thus institutions and instructors who have embraced “blended learning” have an opportunity to maximize student learning by using a variety of instructional tools and methods, online and in the classroom, exploiting the advantages that each has to offer.  So the decision to use e-learning should not be a yes or no proposition, but rather a who, what, why, when, and how analysis. –SH]

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