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Online Learning The E-ffective Path to Career Development & Advancement

Clint Maun, CSP


Online learning or “e-learning” is defined as content presented via a computer over the Internet. For healthcare professionals, e-learning provides a way for individuals to receive information at will—dynamically and immediately. Online learning can be used for regulatory and mandatory topics, and just about any other subject offered in a self-directed learning approach. Further, since many end-users are already employed in healthcare, they can tap into online knowledge and instantly drive those messages beyond the virtual classroom walls and into the workplace.

Over the past few years, online learning has exploded in popularity, with thousands of courses being offered every year. Moreover, online learning’s legitimacy in the marketplace has been validated with many employers recognizing online credits in continuing education. However, as fast as one organization sees the value of e-learning, it seems as if five e-learning vendors enter the marketplace. Deciphering what institutions offer the best benefits and curriculum can prove just as challenging as the courses themselves. Indeed, when enrolling in an online course, one must do a little more due diligence than a simple Google search. Many factors should be considered, including the institution’s background and level of healthcare expertise, costs, benefits, and accessibility—and of course these are just to name a few.

The remainder of this article will discuss how online learning can help resolve the educational challenges facing healthcare professionals today, and what employers and students need to look for in order to make their online learning experience a successful one.


E-learning: One Solution, Many Benefits


E-learning helps healthcare organizations successfully tackle some of the most pressing employee issues they face today. In tough economic times, e-learning emerges as one of the most cost-effective and efficient employee solutions on the market. Because online learning provides easy access to required education through self-paced courses that are available anytime, anywhere, healthcare organizations can reap almost immediate results. As a Web-based, outsourced solution, e-learning enables organizations to avoid the additional costs of distributing materials, hiring quality classroom instructors, and arranging travel logistics and meeting spaces. E-learning also guarantees consistency of the message; everyone in your organization gets the same information in the same way, which is crucial for compliance courses.

The flexibility of online learning also offers a solution to staffing problems. Since online training is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it serves as a great alternative to classroom-style education in which large numbers of staff are simultaneously pulled away from patients’ care to participate. Therefore, online learning can further reduce costs in circumstances in which temporary and overtime staff is paid to relieve personnel from the bedside for attendance at traditional educational forums. Finally, educational content is provided in a consistent manner, and both the night shift and the day shift have equal access to the same material.

Training delivered via the Web can be easily updated. If you outsource your Web-based learning, you gain the added benefit of solutions that are simple, inexpensive and quick to deploy and maintain. Also, e-learning facilitates easy, accurate tracking and reporting to help you ensure that critical knowledge is reaching the right people.


Addressing the Challenges


Although e-learning offers several benefits, a few challenges still remain. For one, because e-learning is so simple and effective, educators may fear being replaced. To address this concern, organizations must stress that although roles may be shifting, they are not disappearing. Educators must ultimately adjust to the change from being a teacher to being a facilitator, a mentor, and a coach. Online learning should be viewed as a tool to assist educators in their roles and should be integrated into current programs, not replace the programs.

With online learning, educators should now have more time to manage overall staff development and provide more one-on-one instruction. Moreover, online learning of regulatory and core-critical care content allows educators time to work with professionals at the bedside or provide in-service programs on unit-specific topics.

Another challenge with e-learning comes in the form of fear and lack of basic computer skills. Some healthcare professionals may feel intimidated and/or uncomfortable with the personal responsibility of online learning. Therefore, assessing your organization’s readiness for online learning is very important. Employees may require training in computer skills before online learning can occur.

Lastly, the American Society for Training and Development recently completed a study on e-learning and asked participants about their top concerns when it comes to online learning. Topping the list was “employee buy-in.” Participants noted inconsistency as another key factor. They cited that one employee can take advantage of e-learning and exercise it with gusto, while another can take the opportunity and squander it; “milking” the time as respite from the daily grind. Addressing these issues relies on two critical components: internal management’s supervision and the learning solution’s progress tracking capabilities. 


Finding the Right Solution


As you assess and evaluate prospective e-learning partners, you should consider the challenges above, as it is likely that you will face these issues when you embrace online learning. A good online learning partner/provider should help you address and eliminate these challenges. Moreover, a good online learning solution should seamlessly deliver the main components that comprise an e-learning solution: content, expertise, and technology and services.


Content


Effective e-learning is a learner-centered experience with rich content and relevant context. Most solution providers offer content in a catalog of "off-the-shelf" courses and/or custom-developed courses for specific needs. Look for a solution provider who offers not only a comprehensive curriculum, but also timely healthcare topics for a variety of staff/management needs. Further, content should be presented in a way that engages participants and incorporates experts. For example, the lessons should offer scenario situations to contemplate implications and recognize errors.  Participants should be able to make choices and receive immediate, expert feedback about how that choice would impact the workplace and/or patients.


Expertise


Finding the right e-learning solution is very similar to finding a traditional college/learning facility—you need to find the place that has adequate resources as well as the individuals to promote development, idea sharing, and innovation. Healthcare professionals should seek an online learning solution that is backed by a community of association professionals with a proven track record of professional development. Learners should have the opportunity to interact with subject matter experts who can provide solid feedback and guidance.

A good online learning partner should also be able to adequately introduce you and your organization to e-learning, providing basic materials and strategies that will help achieve smooth program adoption. Several e-learning vendors focus all of their energy on creating the programs, and pay little or no attention to delivery and support. Solutions providers should not only be extremely familiar with the programs, but should also know how to support them. Look for vendors who can provide additional performance consulting and services that compliment the catalog of courses offered. 


Technology and Services


Ease of use is absolutely key when evaluating online learning solutions. A Web site that allows learners to effortlessly navigate through course catalogs, gather accurate course descriptions, and easily register is essential. Other critical technology and services include the ability to allow learners to keep track of their progress throughout their courses, as well as the ability to stop and start classes at the student’s convenience.

Continuing education courses are used for professional portfolios, career or educational advancement, and performance appraisals, so it’s important that the solution provider offers reports and/or certificates that confirm training and education have occurred. Many providers offer transcripts or a report of content taken, continuing education credits earned, and the completion of any required course work.


Looking Ahead


Staffing issues, time constraints, and costs are some of the biggest barriers facing healthcare professionals as they pursue continuing education. Since online learning offers a learner-centric, cost-effective, easily accessible approach to learning, it is certainly an attractive alternative to traditional classroom-style education. For many individuals and organizations, the only true challenge in online learning remains in finding the right provider. To maximize online continuing education, professionals must seek a partner who can provide rich relevant content, unquestionable healthcare expertise, and comprehensive technology and services.

As online learning grows and evolves, it’s important to remember that it will not wholly replace instructor-led or hands-on training any more than instructor-led training will return as the sole method of teaching. However, with the advent of e-learning, there will be a shift in the way healthcare workers, and workers in general, learn. With e-learning in our future, the opportunities for human knowledge to expand quickly, personally, and effectively are boundless.

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