May 28 2012

If Socrates did digital professional development...

Learning is often said to be most effective when the user is given the chance to interact with the content, and when lots of users share or pool their knowledge via forums or Wikis. Online digital media has great potential as a learning tool, because it can easily fulfil these requirements for interactivity and collaboration.


A recent online education offering, which strikes a balance between quality content and user collaboration, is TEDEd. This learning platform contains a bank of video lessons which teachers are encouraged to customize according to their students’ needs, and then share with other educators. Teachers can add their own materials to original lessons; however, it is not a YouTube-style free-for-all, and videos must follow a set structure including lesson-based quizzes to maintain interactivity. But digital education is not something that appeals only to tech-savvy students. Digital learning is revolutionising continuing professional development (CPD) programmes, and the need to deliver high-quality learning that is also collaborative and interactive is just as pressing.


Most professionals are required to participate in CPD, which has traditionally involved taking time off work to attend seminars, workshops and testing. Discussions amongst colleagues, and between colleagues and speakers can make these events interactive, whilst careful selection of speakers ensures high-quality content. The main problems are time, money, and inconvenience, and the predicament of UK nursing is a case in point. Sending staff to traditional face-to-face CPD means paying for transport and event expenses, and also paying for less experienced temporary staff to cover while they are away. Nursing staff shortages are compounded by high turnover, so CPD is an ongoing burden. It is no surprise then that the Royal School of Nursing has increasingly opted for online CPD.

Online or digital courses can be taken anytime anywhere and content is broken down into short modules – this flexibility eliminates the staff exodus that occurs with traditional CPD days, and can be especially useful for remote practices whose staff are often isolated from the academic centres where face-to-face CPD takes place. Digital CPD may also encourage interaction from those who would otherwise have taken a back seat, such as more reserved learners who may be disadvantaged by face-to-face learning. In addition, if the programmes are offered in different languages, then language barriers for immigrant workers will be eroded.

In fact, online and digital CPD has swept through the professions: lawyers, opticians, and even swimming instructors. Many of the programmes are accredited by the professional body; in other words, taking part allows the user to earn credits which help to fulfil CPD requirements. CPD credits are often awarded on the basis of an end-of-module quiz during which learners can test their knowledge and clarify any misunderstandings thanks to corrective feedback.

docet 3

In this iPhone app released by DOCET (Directorate of Optometric Continuing Education and Training) the user listens to educational podcasts and can complete multiple-choice questions which can then earn the user CET points.

Not only is digital CPD changing the way the user interacts with the learning content, the interaction between user and content provider and vice-versa is also changing. After completing a CPD module, users are often invited to fill out an anonymous feedback survey – you’ll notice the ‘Take Survey’ icon on the screengrab of the DOCET app – and this can only help to improve the quality of content. However, in future, users may also find themselves the target of digital marketing if content providers allow advertisers to exploit the captive audience that the CPD users represent. So, opticians may come across adverts encouraging them to offer particular brands of contact lenses to their clients for example. If digital CPD providers wanted to become open access, then there is the potential for digital marketing revenues to fund the free content. Examples of high quality, accredited, and open access CPD courses are hard to come by; however, there are examples of reputable open access learning opportunities in other fields. Take for example the ‘Stanford Engineering Everywhere’ free online engineering classes.

Whether or not the future of CPD is open access, online and digital CPD may need to get even more interactive if it is to compete for quality with face-to-face CPD. Traditional CPD still has the advantage of being able to network and debate with colleagues as well as ask questions to leading experts. To match this experience, online CPD may need to become more social and collaborative as well as more interactive. This could involve secure professional forums and perhaps live webchat sessions with experts. At the same time, quality needs to be maintained so that the courses continue to be accredited for CPD points. Even if this is implemented, there will still be areas of learning that are best served by face-to-face interaction, such as the practical components of the medical professions. For example, CPD for physiotherapists continues to be achieved by on the job appraisal and by individuals reflecting on their own practice to identify points for improvement. Nevertheless, buoyed by the current climate of cost-cutting, digital CPD will be used more and more extensively. Fortunately, reduced cost need not imply reduced quality – a well executed digital CPD programme has the potential to be an interactive, flexible and accessible experience.

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