Tech 101: Online Learning

Published: Monday, May 12, 2008
All physicians understand that learning is a lifelong activity. Whether we are interested in fulfilling our professional CME requirements, or learning about new things that simply enrich our lives, opportunities to become more educated and knowledgeable have never been easier to find and access. This broad availability of educational resources is, in large part, due to widespread access to personal computers and the Internet.

Online learning is not a particularly new or cutting-edge concept. In the early 1980s, a few companies began using computer-based training (CBT) to train employees, which eventually evolved into Web-based training (WBT, also known as e-learning). This approach delivers curricula and content via the computer, thus enabling people to learn at their own pace, without the need to travel to a physical classroom, with teachers and other students, at a specifi c time and date.  E-learning content takes many forms, and can include text, graphics, audio, video, animations, assessments such as quizzes and tests, demonstrations, and exercises. In my opinion, the more interactive the content, the better, because not being able to interact with a teacher or one’s fellow students is a huge barrier to overcome (personally, I have not been satisfi ed by most of my online CME experiences for this very reason). 

However, the technology-based learning model has undergone quite a transformation over the last 20 years, spreading beyond focused business applications to be more widely embraced by the general public. The highly successful University of Phoenix, for example, has leveraged online learning into becoming the largest accredited private university in the US.  This model of advanced education has proven so successful that nowadays distance learning executive MBA and other degree programs are plentiful, benefi ting executives (and doctors) who rarely have time to travel for continuing education. Physicians looking to earn advanced business administration degrees should check out one of several well-known universities and colleges that offer online programs, including Auburn University, the University of South Florida, and the University of Tennessee.  Online CME resources are also plentiful, although quality can vary quite a bit among programs, which include aff ordable commercial off erings from companies like Pri-Med, and Web-based CME courses from prestigious educational institutions such as Yale University School of Medicine.

Most of the “free” online CME programs are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and medical supply manufacturers—not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind given the propensity for marketing within or surrounding the educational content. You also have to pay attention to the fine print that tells you things like when the availability of credit expires or whether just the course/article content and not the credit (or vice-versa) is free.

For general learning outside of medicine, the Web offers a cornucopia of resources and fun places to visit. Want a quick refresher on the latest CPR techniques? Visit the website Learn CPR.  For the scientist lurking in all of us, another fascinating website offers free scientific videos and lectures. Where else are you going to see a video of neutrophil chemotaxis chasing a bacterium? Similarly, information about online courses on astronomy, philosophy, and even art history can all be found by Googling the topic. While I sometimes fantasize about actually going back to college and auditing courses I wished I knew more about, I know that in reality I would end up being looked at askance by the students wondering what the heck that creepy old guy in the back row is all about. So for me, the Internet will continue to be my classroom.

Dr. Bertman is Physician Editor-in-Chief of MDNG: Primary Care/Cardiology Edition. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University and president of AmazingCharts.com, a leading developer of EHR software. He is also the founder and president of AfraidToAsk.com, a consumer website focusing on personal medical topics. He is in private practice in Hope Valley, RI.


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