Distance Education Is Legitimate


By:  The Musing Medic (@TheMusingMedic)


Hey, Much Of Education Is Inefficient


Let’s cut right to the chase and admit that education is inefficient. The amount of time spent on non-productive activities is staggering. In my experience, most of the wasted time is spent in the actual classroom setting. The reasons for this are varied, but addressing these issues is most likely an exercise in futility. What we can discuss, however, is the adoption of the ever-growing trend of distance based education and its appropriate utilization.


Distance Education Isn’t The Correspondence School You May Remember…


We all remember correspondence courses offered in fields such as medical transcription and private investigation. Late-night television was littered with ads for learning “horticulture at home”. Most of these courses were not for college credits and were generally not of the highest quality. Now fast-forward to the modern day, where we find that a number of reputable universities are offering college courses in an internet-based format. Some of these universities are regional, lower-ranked schools while some are Ivy-League, such as Harvard and Princeton. So how do these internet-based courses differ from the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom?


They Are No Different.


Okay , okay–so that may not be entirely true in the literal sense. Students enrolled in distance learning courses do not travel to a campus or sit in a classroom for a lecture. Nor do they have face-to-face interaction with professors or other students outside of the online video chats or virtual classrooms used by some programs. Outside of these few differences, there is almost nothing to distinguish between the two learning environments.


Consider how internet-based courses rely heavily on recorded lectures and textbooks. Professors generally will provide lecture notes in PDF files or powerpoint slides. Usually there is a class discussion board where students are required to discuss topics addressed in the course. Quizzes are taken online with some being open book and some are not. Also, assignments are e-mailed to the professors if required. As for exams, they are administered via proctor. This proctor can be at a local college or through an online proctor that utilizes a webcam to make sure no cheating occurs. The takeaway point here is that the material presented is exactly the same regardless of how the course is delivered, and modern courseware allows for both interaction and discussion.


As a student who has taken numerous internet-based courses, I think there plenty of advantages. Since some of these courses have no concrete class times, there is more flexibility.  That makes for a great option for those of us who are working adults or deal with the chaotic schedules seen in healthcare. There is no travel time which saves fuel and money. Professors that are boring or talk slowly–no problem! Just play the recorded lecture at 1.5x the normal speed. And no need to worry about in-class distractions such as texting or whispering. Just set up a home office and you’re good to go.


If there is a downside, it is that students need to be self-motivated and disciplined. Students need to setup a workspace that is conducive to learning. Eliminating distractions such as cell phones, televisions, etc., is key for success.  Additionally, a schedule must be created and adhered to strictly. Getting behind in a distance course is not going to lead to a good grade, or, more importantly, good learning.


Now Why Did I Bring This Topic Up On A Medical Blog?


…because medical education, at least the didactic portion, is no different. There is this old-wive’s tale that students can only learn when presented material in live lectures. This is absolutely not true and potentially detrimental to retention. Studies have shown that most students have an attention span of only twenty minutes before knowledge retention falls off precipitously. Unless professors in a traditional classroom are going to give breaks every twenty minutes, they are wasting a lot of their energy. And since this isn’t likely to happen, traditional lecture-based courses are somewhat ineffective. With all this being said, I realize that some medical schools have no attendance requirement. All lectures and lecture slides are provided on a centralized server for download and viewing. This allows for a better utilization of time and resources.


All of this comes down to one thought for me:  the delivery of educational material should come in multiple formats. Be open to the various methods of learning and good things will come.



P.S. I should mention that I have contacted a number of medical school admission offices to ask their opinions on distance education. A resounding number had favorable opinions and were no less likely to reject a student because of it. Which is a good thing to me as an applicant as more than one of my prerequisite courses was taken via distance education through an osteopathic medical school (!)


Questions, comments, thoughts on distance education and it’s place in healthcare?  Let me know!