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Online education may disrupt healthcare

MOOCs present unique challenges for healthcare educators and employers

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have rocketed into the distance education spotlight since Stanford first offered one in the summer of 2011. Not to be left behind, healthcare educators are getting on the bandwagon.

In a little over two years, the number of MOOCs available to students has gone from one to upwards of 500, and universities are scrambling to keep up with popular demand. These free online courses can be taken by anyone with an Internet connection.

Universities like Johns Hopkins, Penn State, and Duke have added healthcare to their MOOC agenda. These classes present unique challenges for healthcare educators and employers, who question how to communicate healthcare concepts to thousands of students across the Internet.

Some praise MOOCs as the answer to the pitfalls of expensive brick-and-mortar education, while others criticize them for diluting education, citing their lack of accreditation and inability to account for student participation.

These distance education courses offer unique challenges to healthcare employers. How should employers view employee participation in MOOCs? Does the count as continuing education? Is an employee who has participated in a MOOC more qualified than one who has not?

“One of the greatest problems facing healthcare is too much specialization,” said Marilyn Lombardi, director of academic and strategic technology at Duke University School of Nursing.  Lombardi recently co-taught a Duke MOOC entitled, “Healthcare Innovations and Entrepreneurship,” which she described as an opportunity to engage with a vast audience  “willing to participate in a global warehouse of ideas.”

Lombardi said her course included people from a wide variety of healthcare professions discussing issues pertinent to everyone in the field. As the industry faces an impending clinician shortage and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, MOOCs could fill the pressing need for inexpensive interdisciplinary education, she said.

“Online education is already a preferred method of training,” noted Lombardi. As distance education continues to take an even greater hold in healthcare, she said MOOCs are looking to stake out their corner in the growing field.

Coursera, one of the larger providers of distance education via the MOOC platform, is offering 55 healthcare-related courses this fall, from 24 different universities and institutions across the globe.

While academia is rushing to embrace MOOCs, the healthcare employer may want to be a little more hesitant. MOOCs offer little to no accreditation in a field where accreditation is everything. Additionally, MOOCs offer no hands on training - a mainstay of traditional health education.

Nonetheless, Lombardi experience suggests that course participants from all over the world are using the MOOC platform to engage with healthcare peers who they likely would not have otherwise met.  As networking becomes increasingly digital, MOOCs may serve as a new forum for professional communication.

Taking part in a MOOC shows initiative and the desire to collaborate, Lombardi said. MOOCs provide a “way for an employee to prove their commitment and self-direction,” she affirmed. “If a healthcare system wants to do continuing education, they might think of using a MOOC as their gateway,”

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