According to a recent World Health Organization report, the world needs 7.2 million more health care professionals to ensure adequate global health. To make up this shortfall, millions of new health care professionals need to be trained. The use of new technologies to make this training more cost-effective while ensuring its quality, is being touted by a growing number of senior medical educators.

In the journal Medical Education, Marc M. Triola, associate professor at the Institute for Innovations in Medical Education, New York University School of Medicine, gives his 5 A’s of e-learning in medical education, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Analytics: E-learning platforms gather detailed information about students’ learning activities and performance over time, giving an evidence base to inform the most effective use of technology in instruction. He calls this an “era of true educational epidemiology.”
  • Access: Anytime, anywhere. Students don’t have to wait for the library to open or to see a tutor.
  • Adaptivity: E-learning applications can respond and adjust to each student. Customized instruction is possible, arguably more so than in traditional education, driven by ongoing evaluation of performance.
  • Assessment: Technology gives us new methods of assessing learners over time and in more detail.
  • Agility: E-learning technology enables instructors to implement new curricula quickly, update them rapidly, and connect students and teachers in new ways.

There is no substitute for hands-on experience in health care training. E-learning is perhaps best suited to deliver the type of information that would be delivered via lectures in the traditional model, but enhanced with video, interactivity and some level of gamification to keep students engaged. Lectures are a one-way means of communication and there’s a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it risk of missing vital information. An e-learning module can be paused and replayed until the student is sure they have grasped its essentials, and they are often forced to interact in order to complete the module.

The potential for e-learning is more effective than traditional learning in that it is self-guided. Rather than being passive recipients of knowledge, students can forge their own learning paths. A WHO report on e-learning states, “E-learning has an under-exploited potential to support health workforce capacity building in different contexts, and can empower health workers to take charge directly of their own competency development.”

The same WHO report gives the results of 108 studies of e-learning in health care education and concludes that students acquired the skills and knowledge from e-learning with as much or more retention than when the same materials were presented in a traditional setting.

With the advent of expanded learning analytics brought on by standards such as Tin Can API, learning experiences can be recorded in a far greater range of environments than on a learning management system alone. Videos, books, events, forums, blogs and more experiences that take place away from the LMS can be logged in a learning record store for analysis and correlated with real-world performance to give insights into the effectiveness of self-directed learning.

There is also the clear benefit of lower cost. Not needing to hire a tutor and a room for them to teach in is a major cost relief for educators. Students can fit their learning around their lifestyle, no more dragging themselves to lectures at inopportune times.

This does not only apply to medical students at university. Nursing skills, public health education, and basic health & safety courses can be delivered effectively via the new technologies, making our planet a healthier place.