News and Commentary George Thibault on Online Medical Education

An explosion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has fueled discussion about whether doctors, nurses and other health professionals could one day get their degrees online. Dr. Thibault discusses what this trend means for health professions education.

Will we ever see a day when medical education will be delivered online?
I have no doubt that there will be more and more penetration of online education for the health professions. It’s already happening. A handful of nursing programs across the country are doing it, and Stanford University School of Medicine is experimenting with it. It will never replace face-to-face learning completely but there’s no question in my mind that there will be some parts of health professions education delivered online.

What does this mean? For faculty, it will mean a changed role that will focus more on assessing such things as competency, analytical skills and interpersonal relationships. It will also lead to more student-to-student learning and small group learning. The future of education will be less and less about transmitting knowledge and more and more about working as a team and assessing where people are in their own competency.

Is this change going to happen quickly or will it be a slow change?
It is going to change but it will happen slowly. The preservation of standards and public responsibility lead to an inherent conservatism in health professions education. However, that conservatism is already beginning to crack as a result of the shift to more interprofessional training. But I don’t envision a day when a student can just mail in and get a health profession’s degree.

How are academic faculty going to react to this?
There are a variety of ways that students learn, and faculty in academic institutions around the country are going to need to learn new skills. Effective online learning is not simply putting a lecture online. Faculty will need a lot of help converting lectures into modules that are interactive. They also will need to be taught how to engage with health professions students in a new way focusing on competencies, analytical skills, teamwork and communication. For many faculty that will absolutely be new territory, but it can be very exciting.

Read about grantees NYU3T, which uses virtual learning to teach students interprofessionally, and Arizona State University and the University of Arizona at Phoenix, which plans to use online tools to connect to students in rural clinical sites

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